Are Modern Perceptions Of Mental Illness And Substance Abuse As Diseases Reducing Stigma?

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Are Modern Perceptions Of Mental Illness And Substance Abuse As Diseases Reducing Stigma?

In recent years, health professionals and the public alike have begun to accept that the causes mental illness and substance are biologically-based. However, a Baylor University study has found that there is also a widespread belief that other, non-biological factors may contribute, such as bad character and upbringing.

This finding reveals that these still-held beliefs may confuse the issue and put a negative spin on the recently revised view that considers mental illness to be disease, contends lead author Matthew A. Andersson in a release:

“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.”

The research, which focused on perceptions toward people who suffer from depression, schizophrenia, or substance abuse (alcoholism) suggested that some beliefs about the etiology of mental illness should be addressed in public campaigns.

Researchers said that while many people in the health community perceive the shift in views toward genetic causes as a good thing, unfortunately, there are still negative social responses to mental illness.

The study examined data from the 2006 General Social Survey (GSS) by the University of Chicago. The survey included a random sample of nearly 1,150 respondents who were given hypothetical situations that involved persons experiencing symptoms of alcoholism, depression, or schizophrenia.

Respondents then completed items from the GSS regarding how likely they believed that certain factors had contributed to the mental illness. Those factors included bad character, a chemical brain imbalance, upbringing, stressful life circumstances, a genetic or inherited condition, and the will of God.

Researchers found the most common perceptions about depression and schizophrenia were that they are the result of a chemical imbalance, stressful life circumstances, and a genetic aberration. They did not believe, however, that they were caused by bad character, upbringing, or divine will.

Those opinions were held by around 23% of the respondents who considered the scenario about a person who was depressed, and one-quarter of those who were given a scenario about someone who suffered from schizophrenia.

Conversely, respondents who were given the scenario about the alcoholic, the most common perceptions about causes were bad character, chemical imbalance, upbringing, stress, and genetic aberration. Twenty-seven percent of the respondents held these opinions, essentially attributing the causes of alcoholism to everything except divine forces.

From the study:

“Using qualitative comparative analysis…we find that not blaming an individual’s character is essential to lowering depression…and that blaming character unconditionally contributes to stigmatizing alcoholism.”

“For schizophrenia and alcoholism, biological explanations may lower stigma contingent on several other beliefs.”


“Re-working anti-stigma policy initiatives around the belief patterns we linked to lowered stigma may help increase the social acceptance of people who suffer from these illnesses.”

~ G. Nathalee Serrels, M.A., Psychology


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