Researchers recently completed a first of its kind, large-scale international survey of attitudes about mental health and they were surprised by the results. According to their analysis published in this month’s issue of the Journal of Affective Disorders, people in developed countries, like the United States, are more likely to assume that ‘mental illnesses’ are similar to physical illnesses and biological or genetic in origin, but they are also much less likely to think that individuals can overcome these challenges and make a full recovery.
“Perhaps surprisingly, where illnesses were believed to be ‘not like physical illness,’ they were also considered more amenable to prevention and recovery,” wrote the researchers, led by Neil Seeman from the University of Toronto.
“Respondents from developed countries, despite believing that mental illness was similar to physical illness (and, as a consequence, one would think, treatable and curable) had less hope for a person being able to overcome mental illness than did respondents from developing countries.”
Seeman and his team used a new survey method to gather opinion data on stigma and conceptions of mental health from all countries in the world simultaneously. The online method allowed the researchers to survey over one million people in 229 countries and protectorates around the world for each question. The researchers asked respondents about their experiences interacting with people diagnosed with mental disorders, the likelihood of violence among those diagnosed, whether ‘mental illnesses’ were similar to physical illnesses, and whether people could ever overcome such a condition.
In the developed countries, like the US, UK, Canada, and Australia, 45% to 51% of those surveyed reported believing that mental illness was similar to physical illness while only 12% to 15% of respondents from developing countries agreed with this statement. However, those in developing countries were much more likely to think that patients are capable of recovery.
“A surprisingly low proportion (7%) of respondents from developed countries endorsed the statement that persons suffering from mental illness can overcome their illness.”
The results of this survey buttress previous research conducted by Pescolido et al. in 2010, which found that neurobiological conceptions of mental illnesses, rather than lessening stigma, actually increased the likelihood of social distance and community rejection.
Seeman, N., Tang, S., & Brown, A. D. (2015). World survey of mental illness stigma. Journal of affective disorders, 190, 115-121. (Abstract)