What is a mental illness? Public views and their effects on attitudes and disclosure

Nicolas Rüsch, Sara Evans-Lacko, Graham Thornicroft
Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry 2012, 46 (7): 641-50

OBJECTIVE: 'Mental illness' is a common label. However, the general public may or may not consider various conditions, ranging from major psychiatric disorders to stress, as mental illnesses. It is unclear how such public views affect attitudes towards people with mental illness and reactions to one's own potential mental illness, e.g. in terms of help-seeking or disclosure.

METHODS: In representative English population surveys the classification of six conditions (schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression, drug addiction, stress, grief) as a mental illness was assessed as well as attitudes towards, and contact with, people with mental illness, intentions to disclose a mental illness and to seek treatment.

RESULTS: A factor analysis of how strongly respondents perceived the six conditions as a mental illness yielded two factors: (i) major psychiatric disorders and (ii) stress- and behaviour-related conditions including drug addiction. In regression analyses, higher scores on the first, but not the second, factor predicted less perceived responsibility of people with mental illness for their actions, and more support for a neurobiological illness model and help-seeking. Classifying stress-related/behaviour-related conditions as mental illnesses, as well as not referring to major psychiatric disorders as mental illnesses, was associated with more negative attitudes and increased social distance, but also with stronger intentions to disclose a mental illness to an employer. Negative attitudes and social distance were also related to ethnic minority status and lower social grade.

CONCLUSIONS: Referring to major psychiatric disorders as mental illnesses may reflect higher mental health literacy, better attitudes towards people with mental illness and help-seeking. A broader concept of mental illness could, although increasing negative attitudes, facilitate disclosure in the workplace. Public views on what is a mental illness may have context-dependent effects and should be taken into account in anti-stigma campaigns.

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