Mental health literacy increases, but mental heath stigma is not reduced. New systematic review explores why not


We have learnt so much about mental illness in the last few decades and the science behind diagnosing, managing and supporting people with individual conditions has improved dramatically. Despite this improved knowledge, public attitudes to mental health issues remain varied and we still frequently hear horror stories about how people with mental health conditions are perceived.

There are thousands of published studies on mental health stigma and an ever increasing pool of systematic reviews that explore the subject area. A quick search on PubMed found well over a hundred systematic reviews on the subject.

One of these papers is a new systematic review in the Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica journal, which attempts to measure whether there is any relationship between the increase in knowledge about what causes mental health problems, with public understanding and attitudes towards people who are directly affected.

The review was conducted by a team of researchers from Germany, Austria, Italy and the USA, who found 16 studies (6 of which they included in their meta-analysis) that examined time trends and beliefs and attitudes about mental illness.

Two main trends were highlighted by this study:

  1. Mental health literacy (understanding of the biological causes of mental illness) improved over time and people were more likely to accept help from health professionals
  2. No positive change in public attitudes towards people with mental health problems was reported. In fact, the research highlighted a possible change for the worse

The researchers concluded:

Increasing public understanding of the biological correlates of mental illness seems not to result in better social acceptance of persons with mental illness.

Schomerus G, Schwahn C, Holzinger A, Corrigan PW, Grabe HJ, Carta MG, Angermeyer MC. Evolution of public attitudes about mental illness: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Acta Psychiatr Scand. 2012 Jan 13. doi: 10.1111/j.1600-0447.2012.01826.x. [Epub ahead of print] [PubMed abstract]

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Andre Tomlin

André Tomlin is an Information Scientist with 20 years experience working in evidence-based healthcare. He's worked in the NHS, for Oxford University and since 2002 as Managing Director of Minervation Ltd, a consultancy company who do clever digital stuff for charities, universities and the public sector. Most recently André has been the driving force behind the Mental Elf and the National Elf Service; an innovative digital platform that helps professionals keep up to date with simple, clear and engaging summaries of evidence-based research. André is a Trustee at the Centre for Mental Health and an Honorary Research Fellow at University College London Division of Psychiatry. He lives in Bristol, surrounded by dogs, elflings and lots of woodland!

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