Biomedical research conducted in the last decade has impressed upon society that mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, alcohol dependence and major depression can have genetic bases. Unfortunately, the public’s scientific knowledge has not necessarily translated into social acceptance.
“The landscape surrounding mental illness has changed a great deal over the last decade. Support for medical treatment has grown, but tolerance for the mentally ill … remains low.”
University of Pennsylvania sociologist Jason Schnittker came to that conclusion after comparing the results of nationwide surveys given in 1996 and 2006, looking at the data provided by 1,400 respondents in each case on the public perception of mentally ill people.
His work was published online earlier this month in the journal Social Science and Medicine.
The General Social Survey tracks social and demographic trends and is conducted every other year. Schnittker chose to study the results of the mental health sections of the survey only.
The respondents were presented with three short stories, each involving a person described as having schizophrenia, alcohol dependence or major depression — though the survey did not identify them as such. After reading about the characters, the respondents were asked how likely they thought each person’s mental illness was to be caused by reasons ranging from environmental factors such as stress, to a genetic problem, to God’s will.
The results suggest that genetic associations for these conditions lead to increased support for medical treatments, but have little positive effect on respondents’ tolerance for the mentally ill.
For example, Schnittker found respondents strongly supported medical treatment for the character with schizophrenia, even to the point of legally requiring it, in part because their increased understanding of the illness as genetically based was correlated with their perception of schizophrenics as dangerous. On the other hand, survey respondents did react react somewhat more favorably toward the character with depression in 2006 compared to 1996, and were more socially accepting.
“In this case,” Schnittker wrote, “depression is no longer seen as a sign of personal weakness, but rather is seen as a disease to be nurtured, treated and perhaps accepted as natural.”