WEDNESDAY, Nov. 24 (HealthDay News) -- Persistent efforts to
reduce the stigma associated with mental illness haven't succeeded
as well as hoped, suggesting that new strategies might be
For decades, a number of organizations have been trying to
persuade the public that mental illnesses such as depression,
alcohol dependence and schizophrenia are neurobiological disorders,
not just people behaving badly, hoping that harsh judgments would
Even drug ads unintentionally bolstered the view of the mentally
ill as having "lifelong" or permanent problems, with their emphasis
on science-focused explanations of the brain mechanisms behind some
mental illness, claims a study appearing in the November issue of
American Journal of Psychiatry.
This study compared people's responses to vignettes describing
individuals with mental illness in surveys conducted a decade
apart, in 1996 and 2006.
Certain attitudes did change for the better. For instance, in
2006, 67 percent of respondents believed major depression had a
neurobiological basis, compared with only 54 percent in 1996.
And support for treatment rose over the years, with 79 percent
supporting treatment for alcoholism in 2006, up from 61 percent in
1996. The proportion of respondents supporting treatment for
depression also rose from 75 percent in 1996 to 85 percent a decade
But these changes didn't bring mental illness out from the
shadows. Respondents still preferred to keep their distance from
people with mental ills and still perceived them as dangerous --
attitudes the researchers described as "surprisingly fixed."
If anything, the "stigma seems to be getting worse," said
Patrick Corrigan, associate dean of psychology research and a
distinguished professor with the Illinois Institute of Technology
A 2007 study found that respondents to a survey who labeled
children as mentally ill were more likely to want to keep their
distance from them, as opposed to labeling the children as
"I really do think Americans respond differently to problems of the body and problems of the mind. When you inject the genetic or biological explanation, it may convey a sense of permanence," said Bernice A. Pescosolido, lead author of the American Journal of Psychiatry article. "If it's [cast as]
biological or genetic, all of a sudden it takes on this air of
permanence which people start to worry about."
So what might be the next strategy to reduce this pervasive
Corrigan believes the answer -- or at least part of it -- lies
in stories, "having people with a condition tell their story. This,
he said, might include a "way-down story" and a "way-up story":
"the way-down proving you are a person with a mental illness and
the way-up proving that you have recovered."
"Most people with serious mental illness do recover, so that's why way-up stories are so important," he added. "We would suggest that [these stories] be told to key power groups -- instead of trying to change popular opinion, trying to change important power groups like landlords [and employers]."
Pescosolido, who is a distinguished professor of sociology and
director of the Indiana Consortium for Mental Health Services
Research at Indiana University in Bloomington, believes that
targeting youth would be helpful.
"Let's start working with the kids. The first two words that kids use to hurt each other are 'crazy' and 'gay.' Kids are already picking those things up," she said. "We need to get them early."
Does that mean handing teachers one more curriculum on top of
race, safe sex and various other issues?
"I don't think so," she said. "We have to help [children] understand difference. She suggests making mental illness "part of a spectrum of illness, an 'Everyone Has Something' tag line," she said.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness has more on fighting
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