May 05, 2005

Stigma: Prevalence and prevention

Two research sources this week released information concerning stigma and discrimination surrounding mental illness.

A PRNewswire press release entitled "Mental Illness Stigmas Are Receding, But Misconceptions Remain", reported that 90% of Americans surveyed feel that people with mental illness can lead healthy lives, and the vast majority also felt that current psychiatric treatment works, and that visitng a psychiatrist is a sign of strength. However, despite these encouraging statistics, 1 in 5 adults still stated that they personally would never see a psychiatrist "under any circumstances." Additionally, although 75% believed (correctly) that mental illness is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain, twice as many respondants from that group said they would seek help from a primary care physician, who is not specially trained to diagnose and treat mental illness.

Other statistics from the survey:

Additional significant findings:

* More women than men think that seeing a psychiatrist is a sign of strength (78 percent vs. 61 percent)
* 75 percent of adults surveyed correctly understand that psychiatrists are medical doctors with medical degrees, while 38 percent mistakenly think that psychologists are medical doctors
* Younger adults are significantly more positive than older adults (65+) about mental illness issues, highlighting progress made in younger generations embracing the realities of mental illness

The survey included 1,020 randomly-selected adults (50% men and 50% women) living in private households in the continental United States.

Source: "Mental Illness Stigmas Are Receding, But Misconceptions Remain", PRNewswire press release (

While this survey reports on the prevalence of mental illness stigma, another research study examines the effectiveness of methods used to reduce such stigma. The study specifically investigates the effectiveness of "social marketing", a tool used by World Psychiatric Association (WPA) Programme to Reduce Stigma and Discrimination Because of Schizophrenia. Social marketing, which has been used for successful AIDS prevention and smoking cessation campaigns, relies on segmenting the overall general audience into several more homogenous, demographically-similar sub-groups (for example: school-age youth, police and criminal justice personnel, employers, etc). The article suggests that such sub-groups can be identified using surveys and other analysis tools to identify among which groups of people stigma appears to be most prevalent.

After the target audiences are established, the campaign message and tools for delivery can be specifically designed for the needs and benefit of each different group. The article specifically cited police training and classroom presentations as two examples of interventions that are more cost-effective than attempting to reach a massive general audience, and that also have the potential to cause specific changes in attitudes, actions, or behavior that could improve the quality of life for people with mental illness.

The specific steps used by the WPA programme (now initiated in 20 countries) are as follows:

1. establish a local action committee (the action committee plans and implements the subsequent steps).
2. conduct a survey of sources of stigma
3. select target groups
4. choose messages and media
5. evaluate the impact of interventions, while continuously refining them.

For more detailed information on the anti-stigma program used by WPA, and for tips on how to successfully launch a campaign, see The website is viewable in eight different languages.

Source: "Local Projects of the World Psychiatric Association Programme to Reduce Stigma and Discrimination." Psychiatr Serv 56:570-575, May 2005


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