The public has become more knowledgeable about mental illness and its
causes over the past decade, according to survey results released by the
advocacy group Mental Health America (MHA) in June. However, stigma is far
from eradicated, especially when it comes to issues surrounding suicide and
drug and alcohol use disorders.
"We've come a long way," said MHA president and CEO David
Shern, Ph.D., in a press release announcing the findings. He pointed out that
the vast majority of people now see mental illnesses such as depression as a
health problem and not a personal
This was not the case just 10 years ago. The results of a 1996 MHA survey
titled "American Attitudes About Clinical Depression and Its
Treatment" showed that only 38 percent of respondents viewed depression
as a health problem as opposed to a sign of personal weakness. Last year,
however, 72 percent considered depression to be a health problem.
To illuminate trends in public attitudes toward mental illness over time,
researchers from International Communications Research polled a nationally
representative sample of 3,040 people aged 18 and older from October 10 to
November 1, 2006, via telephone and the Internet.
For the 1996 survey, 1,166 people aged 18 and older were contacted by phone
from January 19 to January 26, 1996, to measure awareness of and attitudes
about clinical depression.
While attitudes about depression have improved in the past decade, stigma
still characterizes the public's view of mental health problems other than
depression—for instance, 38 percent of respondents to last year's survey
viewed drug and alcohol abuse as a health problem, but 57 percent labeled them
a sign of personal weakness. In comparison, 97 percent and 96 percent of
respondents viewed cancer and diabetes, respectively, as health problems
rather than a personal weakness.
Additional findings highlighted the stigma that continues to surround
suicide and suicidal behaviors. For example, respondents were evenly split on
the question of whether suicide is a health problem or a sign of personal
weakness (46 percent endorsed each response). In addition, respondents
underestimated the prevalence of suicide: 63 percent believed that homicides
outnumber suicides, when in fact suicide deaths outnumber homicides by a ratio
of 3 to 2—there are about 30,000 suicides and 18,000 homicides in the
United States each year.
"Societal acceptance and support are instrumental in helping
individuals and families facing mental health issues to recover and enjoy
healthy, fulfilling lives in the community," Shern said.
Information about the survey "Understanding of and Attitudes
Towards Mental Illness" is posted at<www.mentalhealthamerica.net/go/surveys>.▪