The Perception of Mental Illness

By Lauren Stiene | Saltman Quarterly | SQ Online 2016-2017

Throughout history, debilitating stigmas have been attached to individuals diagnosed with mental illnesses. These stigmas have been fashioned and generalized as a result of misconceptions that surround certain mental illnesses. Some of these misconceptions are developed through the influence of the media. For example, seventy-seven percent of mentally ill individuals depicted on prime-time television are portrayed as dangerous, while only three percent of persons with mental illnesses could truly be categorized as dangerous. Other stigmas that have been attached to mental illnesses such as schizophrenia are: unpredictability, being difficult to talk to, and beyond help.

The negative attitudes and stigmas that surround mental illnesses can have a detrimental effect on individuals who possess the disorder. The embarrassment associated with accessing mental health services commonly prevents individuals who possess symptoms of mental illness to seek help for their disorders. This reluctance to seek help can lead to the individual remaining untreated, which could result in the individual causing harm to themselves or others.

In their 2003 study, Angermeyer and Matcschinger found that the association of schizophrenia, a severe brain disorder which causes people to interpret reality abnormally, with being dangerous can have a detrimental effect on the social health of persons with schizophrenia. This is because others may be hesitant to interact with these persons and prefer to keep social distance. The perception of individuals with schizophrenia as “in need of help” may lead to contradictory feelings to both maintain and decrease social distance from those affected. If people adopt the notion that they need to maintain distance from individuals with mental disorders, this will only make individuals with disorders feel isolated and this may worsen their condition. It is important that mentally ill individuals maintain healthy relationships, which requires people treating them as they would if they didn’t have the illness.

Over the past few decades, mental illness has become increasingly more common. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about 4.1 percent of US adults have been diagnosed with serious mental illness, and approximately 18.6 percent of the entire US adult population has been diagnosed with any mental illness (AMI). This increase in diagnoses may be due in part to the progress made in the past few decades to increase awareness about mental illness and combat the negative treatment of mentally ill individuals. The perception of mental illness has undoubtedly improved since decades ago, and this improvement could attribute to more individuals seeking help for their disorders.

A positive association of certain mental illnesses with intelligence and/or creativity has grown over the past few years. It can be seen that many individuals who have been diagnosed with a mental illness, though facing impairments in certain mental processes, have enhanced capabilities in other mental processes. For example, schizophrenia is commonly associated with enhanced creative abilities. Studies suggest that the same genes that expand vertebrate cognition can predispose for mental illness; this may be due to genetic variability that has resulted in mutations to genes that code for cognition. This genetic link between intelligence and mental illness may propose an evolution of human intelligence through genetic variability (Nithianantharajah et al, 2013).

There are three general strategies that aim to alter the misconceived perceptions of certain mental disorders: education, contact, and protest. The method of changing public perceptions through education strives to replace myths about mental illnesses with accurate conceptions and facts, supported by statistics. The strategy of “contact” serves to challenge attitudes toward mental disorders by encouraging direct interactions with persons who possess the mental disorders. The third strategy involves actively protesting stigmas in the hope of suppressing these negative perceptions. Corrigan et al tested these three strategies in an experiment which consisted of 152 community college students who were each assigned to one of the three strategies or a control group. The subjects were to complete a questionnaire that asked about attributions toward two physical diseases: cancer and AIDs; and four psychiatric disorders: depression, cocaine addiction, mental retardation, and psychosis. The students completed the questionnaire both before and after they took part in the strategy. The education strategy resulted in improved attitudes toward the four mental illnesses and no change to perceptions of the two physical disabilities. The strategy of contact resulted in significant improvements in attitudes, much greater than the effect of education. toward persons with depression and psychosis. The strategy of protest resulted in no patterns of change in attitude toward persons with either mental or physical disabilities. This shows that simply condemning the mistreatment of mentally ill individuals is not the most effective method of improving the treatment of these individuals. Contact and education can therefore be concluded from this study as the most effective methods of reducing the stigmas associated with mental illness.

As with most of our views, the perception of mental illness is largely affected by the education we receive, the media, and our personal experiences with these disorders. Although it may be impossible to remove the negative stigmas attached to mental illness entirely, progress has been and can continue to be made in this effort. The main factors that affect people’s perception of mental illness that can be controlled are education and the media. It would be steps taken forward for this effort if all high schools were required to to teach students accurately about mental illness and if movie and television show characters would no longer associate mental illness with violence or other negative stigmas.