Societal attitudes toward people with mental illness have long been
characterized by stigma, which may prevent people with mental health problems
from seeking treatment and hinder the progress of legislation to increase
access to care.
But the results of a new survey suggest that at least some Americans do not
discriminate against people with mental illness, have at least a basic
understanding of the nature of mental disorders, and would pay higher taxes to
improve access to mental health services.
According to a survey of 650 Houston-area residents conducted last spring
by the Center for Public Policy at the University of Houston, 63 percent
believe mental illness is primarily due to a brain disorder, while just 5
percent believe it is due to a character flaw.
The remainder of respondents attributed mental illness to "something
else," including a genetic disorder (10 percent), the person's home
environment (9 percent), a chemical imbalance (5 percent), or stress (5
percent), among other variables.
In addition, 86 percent of people surveyed said they believed that health
insurance companies should be required to cover mental health treatment in the
same way they do other illnesses.
"This study is a powerful indication of an evolutionary process in
which the stigma that has been traditionally attached to mental illness is
gradually disappearing," said Stephen Klineberg, Ph.D., director of the
annual Houston Area Survey and a professor of sociology at Rice
The Houston Area Survey has been conducted since 1982 using a sample of
Houston-area residents who are said to be representative of the U.S.
population and who are selected through a two-stage, random-digit-dialing
Each year the survey gathers information on beliefs and attitudes of
residents on controversial issues, such as abortion and civil rights for gays
and lesbians, and other topics on the country's agenda.
This year, the Mental Health Association of Greater Houston contracted with
Rice University to incorporate six questions about mental illness in the
The researchers found the following:
Klineberg noted that if respondents knew a person with mental illness, they
were much more likely to believe that mental illness is a brain-based
disorder, that treatments work, and that a tax increase to support improved
access to mental health services is a good
He also collected information about each respondent's age, race, education,
gender, and religion. None of those variables predicted responses to the
questions about mental illness.
Jeremy Lazarus, M.D., chair of APA's Council on Advocacy and Public Policy
and vice speaker of the AMA House of Delegates, said he was encouraged by the
"The fact that people say they would be willing to pay more taxes to
fund mental health services is a hopeful sign."
Yet the fact that parity legislation is stalled in the House of
Representatives, Lazarus said, points to the fact that "stigma is still
a problem, [as evidenced by] lawmakers' unwillingness to treat mental
illnesses in the same way other illnesses are treated."
The report, "Public Perceptions of Mental Illness: Findings
From the Mental Health Module Included in the 2004 Houston Area Survey,"
is posted online at<www.mhahouston.org>.▪