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:
- 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
- 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]
Rather than stigma against mentally ill people specifically, I wonder if people just pick on anyone that they perceive as different from themselves; if so interventions may need to be focused in a different way.
My 21 yer old son has a lot of mental health issues( some being treated) and even though family and friends try to understand…it seems they don’t…even when i explain he is more of a danger to himself than others,.its so sad that the general public don’t and won’t want to understand…By the way,i care for him at home 24/7…and he has a support worker come once a fornight….
It’s not hard to understand the conclusion this study has come to. I have found that the times I have felt most stigmatised have been the result of professionals actually working in mental health and also other medical professions (and my observation of this stigma is as both a patient and as a health professional). If even those with an expert knowledge of mental health issues can have such disrespectful attitudes and make preconceived judgements of people with mental health issues then I doubt there is much hope for the general public to be more accepting just by being more informed.