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Understanding of Mental Illness Increases, but Stigma Remains

Our understanding of mental illness has increased significantly over the past 15 to 20 years. Unfortunately, public attitudes about mental illness do not appear to have kept pace and, in some cases, have become less accepting than they were in the 1990s. Bernice Pescosolido, director of the Indiana Consortium for Mental Health Services Research and professor at Indiana University, led a research study that analyzed responses to the General Social Survey in 1996 and 2006 to determine how public attitudes toward mental illness changed during the 11-year period. Specifically, the researchers looked at responses relating to public attitudes about depression, schizophrenia and alcohol dependence.

Greater Support for Psychiatric Treatment

Overall, the responses suggest that the public in general is now more willing to recognize that mental disorders and substance use disorders are genuine illnesses that require professional treatment. However, the responses also indicate that this recognition has not made people any more comfortable with mental illness. On the positive side, people are now more likely to recognize neurobiological causes for mental illness, and to believe that someone suffering from depression or an alcohol use disorder should seek psychiatric treatment. In 1996, 54 percent of the public attributed depression to neurobiological causes, compared to 67 percent in 2006. The percentage of people in support of psychiatric treatment for depression rose from 75 percent to 85 percent, and the percentage of people in support of treatment for alcoholism rose from 61 percent to 79 percent.

Some Stigmas Increase between 1996 and 2006

However, support for treatment didn’t appear to make people more comfortable associating with mental illness. In a number of areas, stigma surrounding alcohol dependence and mental illness noticeably increased. Seventy-nine percent of people in the 2006 General Social Survey said that they would not want someone with alcoholism to marry a member of their family, up from 70 percent in 1996. A higher percentage of people also reported concerns over associating with someone with schizophrenia; 45 percent in 2006 said they would not want to have a neighbor with schizophrenia, compared to 34 percent in 1996. In another significant finding, the percentage of people who considered those with alcohol dependence to have “bad character” rose considerably between 1996 and 2006, from 49 percent to 65 percent. While greater support for psychiatric treatment seems to show greater acceptance of the disease model of addiction, the prevailing attitude suggests that the majority of the public still consider people to be at fault for their alcoholism.

Many Areas of Social Stigma Remain High

Other measures of social stigma remained high, although they did not actually increase. A large majority of people continued to believe that people with alcoholism or schizophrenia are more likely to behave violently. Many people remained wary about interacting with those who have mental illness or substance use problems. Sixty-two percent of respondents reported that they would not want to work with someone with schizophrenia, and 74 percent said they would not want to work with someone with alcohol dependence. Fifty-two percent of respondents said they would not want to socialize with a person with schizophrenia, while 54 percent said they would not want to socialize with someone with alcohol dependence. Overall, there was significantly less stigma surrounding depression, and the highest levels of recognition for neurobiological causes. However, while public acceptance of depression remains high compared to public acceptance of schizophrenia and alcohol dependence, it also failed to showed improvement between 1996 and 2006.

Public Attitudes Help Shape Policy

  In their discussion of the research findings, Pescosolido and her team note that public attitudes about mental illness and substance abuse can be highly influential. Stigma can lead to secrecy and shame that may discourage people from seeking necessary treatment. Public attitudes also help to shape policy and in deciding how much time, money and resources are directed toward treatment options.

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