Knowledge and attitudes about mental illness: a survey of middle school students

Otto Wahl, Janet Susin, Amy Lax, Lorraine Kaplan, Dayna Zatina
Psychiatric Services: a Journal of the American Psychiatric Association 2012, 63 (7): 649-54

OBJECTIVES: Despite the many studies of public attitudes toward mental illnesses, relatively few have examined the views of the youngest generation of citizens. This study was intended to increase understanding of youths' views of mental illness by developing and administering measures of knowledge and attitudes of middle school students toward mental illnesses.

METHODS: Self-report questionnaires concerning knowledge, attitudes, and social distance related to mental illness were developed and pilot-tested to create an assessment tool appropriate for a juvenile sample. The measures were administered to 193 students at four middle schools in different parts of the United States between November 2008 and April 2009.

RESULTS: The students' knowledge about mental illness was inconsistent, but important gaps were evident, particularly with respect to the symptoms of specific disorders. Attitudes toward individuals with a mental illness were generally positive, but substantial numbers of students had less favorable attitudes. Social distance scores revealed considerable reluctance to interact closely with a person with mental illness. Most (65%) students were uncertain whether mental illnesses have a biological cause, and 37% believed that medication to treat mental illness is useful.

CONCLUSIONS: Attitudes toward individuals with mental illnesses may be more favorable among students than among adults. Nevertheless, stigma may persist as a problem for the next generation of citizens, and youths with a mental illness remain likely to experience misunderstanding and exclusion by peers. There is a need to educate children about specific disorders and about acceptance of individuals with mental illness.


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