Americans still wary of mentally ill

depressed girl

Americans’ attitudes toward mental illnesses—how they’re caused, and how they’re treated—have changed dramatically over the course of the past decade.

But there’s one thing that hasn’t changed, says Penn Professor of Sociology Jason Schnittker: The way Americans view the people who actually suffer from mental illness.

In a recent study, Schnittker reports that even though more Americans today believe that mental illness has a genetic basis—in the past, many believed the mentally ill were responsible for their problems—they remain just as intolerant toward some mentally ill patients, especially schizophrenics, as they’ve ever been. Schnittker’s study, “An Uncertain Revolution: Why the Rise of a Genetic Model on Mental Illness Has Not Increased Tolerance,” was published in the online journal Social Science, and reveals that while Americans better understand mental illness today, and while more people are being treated for mental illness, Americans remain in some cases wary, untrusting and even frightened of the people battling those conditions.

“My study looks at the change [in attitudes toward mental illness] over a 10-year period, and during that time more people got on board with the idea that genes cause mental illness—everything from depression to alcoholism to schizophrenia,” Schnittker says. “So, too, did more people get on board with the idea that mental illness can be treated medically. But when we get to questions like, ‘Are you willing to be friends with somebody who is mentally ill,’ there’s not much change.”

Schnittker points out that Americans seem to view different mental illnesses through different lenses. People battling alcoholism and depression, for instance, are seen in a much more favorable light than they were in decades past. Back then, these illnesses may have been attributed to an individual’s laziness or lack of self-control.

Today, people battling these diseases are often viewed as sympathetic figures.

Just take a look, Schnittker says, at how Philadelphia Eagles fans embraced star offensive guard Shawn Andrews. Andrews was mysteriously absent from training camp for weeks before finally revealing that he has been battling severe depression. And though Andrews admitted he had serious concerns about how his teammates, coaches and fans would react, he said he was relieved to find everyone very understanding of his plight. “If there’s anybody that doubts me, nobody shows it,” Andrews told PhiladelphiaEagles.com. “There’s nothing but support here.”

Unfortunately, Schnittker says, the same level of understanding is not extended to schizophrenics.

The fact that more people understand schizophrenics aren’t at fault for their struggles doesn’t change the fact that most Americans don’t want to work with them, help them, or even associate with them.

The bottom line, Schnittker says, is that Americans view schizophrenics as “damaged” in a fundamental way. They view them as dangerous.
And even though massive efforts have been launched to help Americans overcome this bias, it hasn’t gone away. Schnittker isn’t sure when, or if, it ever will.

“There’s been real progress on issues we care about,” Schnittker says. “We know now that people with mental illness can be treated. There are more people on board with the idea that these treatments work. But there remains this shadow side where people just want to put distance between themselves and the mentally ill. That hasn’t changed much.”

Originally published on September 18, 2008