Stigma Still Surrounds People with Mental Illness and Substance Abuse Disorders

People who suffer from mental illness and substance abuse problems are still viewed in a negative light by many, despite a greater understanding of the neurobiological causes of these disorders. A study by researchers from Indiana University and Columbia University found that prejudice and discrimination against those with mental health problems, including addiction, have remained the same and may actually be increasing.

Bernice Pescosolido, a sociologist and Indiana University and a leading researcher in the area of stigma and mental illness, said that it’s time to rethink the current approach of “mental illness is a disease just like any other,” as it doesn’t seem to be reducing stigma in the United States.

Stigma is a major obstacle in getting treatment for many people who suffer from mental illnesses and substance abuse disorders. It can lead to discrimination with regard to employment, housing, interpersonal relationships, medical care, and more.

The study looked at whether Americans’ attitudes toward mental illness have changed over a ten-year period, taking into consideration the effort by many organizations to raise awareness of the genetic and medical causes for mental illnesses, including substance abuse. The researchers found that while more people accepted these explanations, prejudice and discrimination remained the same and was sometimes worse.

The researchers used questions from the General Social Surveys from 1996 and 2006, which involve in-person interviews. About 1,956 adults answered questions regarding a story about a person who had major depression, schizophrenia, or alcohol dependency.

In 2006, 67 percent of the participants attributed depression to neurobiological causes, whereas 54 percent did so in 1996. In 2006, 79 percent of people supported treatment from a doctor or psychiatrist for alcohol dependence compared to 61 percent in 1996, and 85 percent supported the same kind of treatment for major depressed in 2006 compared to 75 percent in 1996.

People who supported neurobiological causes for mental illness were more likely to support treatment, but social rejection of the person described in the story tended to increase rather than decrease.

The researchers said their study, for the first time, provides real data regarding whether prejudice against people with mental illness is changing, reinforcing the need for a new approach toward social acceptance of mental disorders.

Pescosolido said that researchers need to get groups in every community involved to discuss these issues, as they affect nearly every American family, either directly or indirectly. She added that well-established civic groups that aren’t normally involved with mental health could help raise awareness of the importance of increasing social acceptance for those with mental illnesses.

Source: Science Daily, Mental Illness Stigma Entrenched in American Culture; New Strategies Needed, Study Finds, September 15, 2010

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