Coping with mental illness is a challenge that’s often made worse by prominent societal stigmas. But a new study out of the University of Florida suggests that education and contact with people with mental illnesses can help fight these negative beliefs.
Researchers Jean M. Theurer and her colleagues partnered with a local chapter of NAMI, the National Alliance for Mental Illness, to design a study examining the prevalence of stigma against people with mental illness and its effects on them. “Stigma is moderated most effectively by a combination of education and contact with people with mental illness diagnoses,” report Theurer and her team.
In the study, twenty-two participant-researchers from NAMI spent a week wearing t-shirts labeled with mental illnesses such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. During this week, they wrote down observations about their interactions with the public. Members of the public who approached the participant-researchers were invited to complete follow-up interviews to learn more about their attitudes towards people with mental illness.
The researchers found that stigma towards people with mental illness were fueled by a lack of information and negative portrayals of mental illness in the media. Few of the community members interviewed had any formal training regarding mental illness and often didn’t know where to go for more information about the subject. They also noted that people with mental illness are often characterized as dangerous, different, and frightening in the media.
Overall, both the participant-researchers and the community interviewees felt that negative stereotypes contributed to a sense of fear about people with mental illness. One community member noted that she would be afraid to meet someone with schizophrenia because “they are not in contact with our reality, maybe they would have this crazy idea that they hear something and someone was telling them [to do] a violent act.” This sense of fear creates shame for people with mental illness. “[W]e treat mental illness like a defect,” one community member said.
The good news is that the research revealed ways to combat the stigma against people with mental illness. Many community interviewees recommended that further education could familiarize people with mental illnesses. “If we do encounter mental illness, we’re better equipped. You know, it opens doors,” one community interviewee suggested.
However, contact with people with mental illness is also important. “Education by itself does not reduce stigma. Contact helps others understand the reality of mental illness and begins the process of mitigating negative stereotypes. There needs to be a community conversation with the individuals and families directly affected.”
At the university where the study was conducted, this process is already beginning. “These findings prompted an evaluation and subsequent redirection of programs and services to include university-based awareness and educational programs. New emphasis will be placed on programs which incorporate contact with individuals in recovery.”
Jean M. Theurer, Nicole Jean-Paul, Kristi Cheyney, Mirka Koro-Ljungberg, and Bruce R. Stevens, University of Florida