Mental Illness Stigma Hard to Shake, Survey Finds

Awareness campaigns have helped educate public, but discrimination continues, experts say

WEDNESDAY, Sept. 14 (HealthDay News) -- The level of Americans' prejudice and discrimination toward people with serious mental illness or substance abuse problems didn't change over 10 years, a new study has found.

The findings raise questions about the effectiveness of campaigns to educate people about mental illness and suggest that new approaches may be needed, said the researchers at Indiana University and Columbia University.

"Prejudice and discrimination in the U.S. aren't moving. In fact, in some cases, it may be increasing. It's time to stand back and rethink our approach," Indiana University sociologist Bernice Pescosolido said in a university news release.

She and her colleagues compared the attitudes of people in 1996 and 2006. During this period, there was a major push to make Americans more aware of the genetic and medical explanations for conditions such as depression, schizophrenia and substance abuse.

About 1,956 adults who took part in the 1996 and 2006 General Social Survey listened to a short piece featuring a person who had major depression, schizophrenia or alcohol dependency, and then answered a series of questions.

Among the key findings:

  • The number of participants who attributed major depression to neurobiological causes was 54 percent in 1996 and 67 percent in 2006.
  • There was an increase in the proportion of participants who supported treatment from a doctor, and more specifically from a psychiatrist, for treatment of alcohol dependence (from 61 percent in 1996 to 79 percent in 2006) and major depression (from 75 percent in 1996 to 85 percent in 2006).
  • People who believed that mental illness and substance abuse had neurobiological causes were more likely to be in favor of providing treatment. But these people were no less likely to stigmatize patients with mental illness or substance abuse problems.

The study findings were published online Sept. 15 in the American Journal of Psychiatry.

Efforts to reduce stigma should focus on the person rather than the disease, and emphasize the abilities of people with mental health problems, Pescosolido suggested. "We need to involve groups in each community to talk about these issues, which affect nearly every family in America in some way. This is in everyone's interest," she added.

More information

The American Psychiatric Association has more about mental illness.

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