The Stigma of Mental Illness

stigma of mental illness

We don’t stigmatize people with diseases like breast cancer because we know, for the most part, they are biological. So naturally, the thought goes if we endorse the idea that mental illness is also biological, we wont hold negative beliefs about those who suffer from it.

Yet according to a new study done by researchers at Baylor University, this theory doesn’t really work out so well in real life. Analyzing data from the 2006 General Social Survey administered by the University of Chicago, researchers presented a random sample of 1,147 respondents with a survey that included theoretical situations involving individuals suffering from symptoms of depression, schizophrenia or alcoholism.

Respondents then completed six items from the General Social Survey about how likely they thought it was that certain factors had caused the mental health problem. Those factors included:

  • Bad character
  • A chemical imbalance in the brain
  • The way he or she was raised
  • Stressful circumstances in his or her life
  • A genetic or inherited problem
  • God’s will

Lastly, to measure the stigma of mental illness, respondents were asked how willing they would be to have a person like the one in the vignette (1) move next door; (2) start working closely with them on a job; (3) marry into their family; (4) spend an evening socializing with them; (5) become their friend; or (6) move into a newly established group home in their neighborhoods for people in that condition.

For depression and schizophrenia, the most common combination of viewpoints was that they are caused by chemical imbalance, stressful life circumstances and genetic abnormality – about 23 percent for the depressed person and 25 percent for the schizophrenic (Andersson & Harkness, 2018).

However, for the alcoholic, the results were much different. The most common combination of beliefs about causes included bad character, chemical imbalance, the way one was raised, stress and genetic abnormality — held by 27 percent of respondents (Andersson & Harkness, 2018).

Andersson explains, “One specific piece of advice is clear for combatting stigma toward depression or alcoholism: Bad character or personal weakness needs to be absolved explicitly for biological explanations to reduce stigma effectively” Andersson, 2018).

Andersson also noted that individuals who endorse biological beliefs that mental illness is ‘a disease like any other’ also tend to endorse other, non-biological beliefs, making the overall effect of biological beliefs quite convoluted and sometimes negative (Andersson, 2018).

Although many in the mental health community – including the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services – see the shift in views toward genetic or chemical causes as encouraging, mental illness unfortunately still draws negative social reactions. And those social reactions often contribute to the resistance of those who suffer from mental illness to seek treatment.

Understanding how subtle – yet widely held beliefs – influence the mentally ill is the first step toward reducing the stigma that acts as a barrier to treatment. However, there are also several steps that clinicians themselves can take to help those seeking mental health overcome feelings of being stigmatized.

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Related Online Continuing Education (CE) Course:

Overcoming the Stigma of Mental IllnessOvercoming the Stigma of Mental Illness is a 2-hour online continuing education (CE/CEU) course that explores the stigmas around mental illness and provides effective strategies to overcome them.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) defines the stigma of mental illness as “a range of negative attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors about mental and substance use disorders.” Mental health and substance use disorders are prevalent and among the most highly stigmatized health conditions in the United States, and they remain barriers to full participation in society in areas as basic as education, housing, and employment.

This course will explore the stigmas surrounding mental illness and provide effective strategies clinicians can use to create a therapeutic environment where clients can evaluate their attitudes, beliefs, and fears about mental illness, and ultimately find ways to overcome them. We will explore the ways in which mental illness stigmas shape our beliefs, decisions, and lives. We will then look at specific stigmas about mental illness, from the fear of being seen as crazy to the fear of losing cognitive function and the ways in which we seek to avoid these fears. We will then look at targeted strategies that, you, the clinician, can use to create a therapeutic alliance where change and healing can overcome the client’s fears. Lastly, we will look at the specific exercises you can use in session with your clients to help them address and overcome their biases and stigmas about mental illness. Course #21-24 | 2018 | 35 pages | 15 posttest questions

Course Directions

Online courses provide instant access to the course materials (PDF download) and CE test. Successful completion of the online CE test (80% required to pass, 3 chances to take) and course evaluation are required to earn a certificate of completion. Click here to learn more. Have a question? Contact us. We’re here to help!

Professional Development Resources is a nonprofit educational corporation 501(c)(3) organized in 1992. We are approved to sponsor continuing education by the American Psychological Association (APA); the National Board of Certified Counselors (NBCC); the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB); the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA); the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA); the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR); the Alabama State Board of Occupational Therapy; the Florida Boards of Social Work, Mental Health Counseling and Marriage and Family Therapy, Psychology & School Psychology, Dietetics & Nutrition, Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology, and Occupational Therapy Practice; the Ohio Counselor, Social Worker & MFT Board and Board of Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology; the South Carolina Board of Professional Counselors & MFTs; the Texas Board of Examiners of Marriage & Family Therapists and State Board of Social Worker Examiners; and are CE Broker compliant (all courses are reported within a few days of completion).

Target Audience: PsychologistsCounselorsSocial WorkersMarriage & Family Therapist (MFTs)Speech-Language Pathologists (SLPs)Occupational Therapists (OTs)Registered Dietitian Nutritionists (RDNs)School Psychologists, and Teachers

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