Young people's stigmatizing attitudes towards people with mental disorders: findings from an Australian national survey

Nicola J Reavley, Anthony F Jorm
Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry 2011, 45 (12): 1033-9

OBJECTIVE: The aim of this study was to carry out a national survey in order to assess young people's stigmatizing attitudes towards people with depression, anxiety disorders and psychosis/schizophrenia.

METHOD: In 2011, telephone interviews were carried out with 3021 Australians aged between 15 and 25 years. Participants were presented with a case vignette describing either depression, depression with suicidal thoughts, depression with alcohol misuse, psychosis/schizophrenia, social phobia or PTSD. Questions were asked about stigmatizing attitudes, including personal and perceived stigma and desire for social distance.

RESULTS: Across all disorders, respondents were least likely to agree that they should avoid the person described in the vignette and most likely to endorse beliefs about unpredictability, particularly in the case of the psychosis/schizophrenia and depression with substance abuse vignettes. Social phobia was most likely to be seen as a sign of personal weakness or 'not a real medical illness'. Perception of stigma in others was greater than that reported by respondents themselves. Desire for social distance was greatest for the psychosis/schizophrenia vignette and lowest for PTSD. For each vignette, respondents were most unwilling to work on a project with the person described in the vignette, while desire for social distance was generally lowest for developing a close friendship.

CONCLUSIONS: While young people associated all mental disorders with unpredictability, patterns of stigmatizing attitudes differed according to disorder, with notable differences between psychosis/schizophrenia and social phobia. Anti-stigma interventions should focus on individual disorders rather than on 'mental illness' in general and may need to address beliefs about unpredictability, social phobia as due to weakness of character and dangerousness in those with more severe disorders. Interventions should also focus on bringing beliefs about public perceptions in line with personal beliefs, as the latter are much less stigmatizing.

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