Biomedical Model of Mental Illness Fosters Social Rejection and Stigma, Study Finds

A new experimental study finds that genetic explanations of psychiatric disorders contribute to social distancing from individuals diagnosed with mental illness.


Genetic explanations of mental illness lead to social distancing from individuals with a diagnosed mental health disorder. A new study published in Psychiatric Services investigates how explanations of the origins of mental illness, treatability, and type of disorder impact the general public’s perception of the diagnosed individual. The study’s results contradict conventional narratives about how biological understandings are meant to reduce stigma when, in fact, they exacerbate it.

The authors, an interdisciplinary research team from the University of Nevada led by Marta Elliott in the Department of Sociology, write:

“Attributing mental illness solely to genetics predicts social rejection of people diagnosed as having psychiatric disorders. Efforts to reduce stigma, increase social acceptance, and protect the mental health of individuals diagnosed as having a mental illness should include not framing mental illness exclusively in genetic terms.”

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  1. “Portraying mental illness in exclusively genetic terms may perpetuate stigma, encourage discrimination, and harm the mental health of people living with psychiatric diagnoses.” Especially since such claims are a blatant lie, and doctors really shouldn’t be blatantly lying to their clients, or their clients’ families.

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    • Well yes of course stigma is attached to behavior. But doctors treat me differentl no matter what symptom I complain of they refer me to psychiatry. I’m not acting irrational at all. I bring witnesses. It’s awful. I need proper healthcare. I also have had personal
      Experiences with friends who treat me differently after they find out my mental diagnosis than they did before they knew.

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    • This is a lie. It is the same lie peddled by mental health workers and by families of patients to justify psychiatrically categorising a person and dismissing their very valid concerns about what will come from those diagnoses. It makes their life and their job easier, what happens to the person they’re applying the diagnosis on be damned.

      Stigma doesn’t just come from behaviour. Tell a person the guy standing next to you is “schizophrenic” and their behaviour and views towards that person will almost definitely change (hell even mine might). Same thing with any other diagnosis (especially things like “personality disorders”).

      It is a very valid request for people to tell psychiatrists/psychologists etc., if they ever find themselves in the unfortunate situation of facing one, not to psychiatrically categorise them with anything. You don’t have to do it at all. A person’s behaviour can be jotted down descriptively. Everyone has a description: “He was born on this day, studied in this place, went through this at that time, feels like this…etc.”

      Also, 95% of the people you interact with may have very little relevance to your life compared to the 5% who do have power over you. Some guy you ocassionally eat a sandwich with during work-break is not as relevant as your spouse or parents.

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      • “It is a very valid request for people to tell…. not to psychiatrically categorise them “
        I agree that is a valid request!
        However, if they don’t diagnose they will not get paid. They can’t bill your insurance. That won’t evsn work if you’re paying out of pocket. They will fear you or your family suing them if you leave their office & something bad happens.
        Psychiatrists DO get sued and DO loose all the time. But never ever for over-diagnosing or over-treatment. It’s always for not being aggressive enough. I’m not saying I agree that that is way it should be. But that is the way it is.
        It’s not going to change anything to focus on changing individual bad behavior within an appointment. It won’t change that doctor. It IS bad behavior. the problem is beyond that. It’s a systemic problem and it’s a deep rooted one.
        And I cannot even JUST advise to just don’t go to a psych office to ask for help. I certainly would advise against it! But since a perso can literally be forced to be in fromt of a mental health professional by law, it’s a systemic problem for all of us to fight to change.
        But society actually likes to be able to dispose of certain other people who’s behavior is causing them discomfort;fear/anger/annoyance/inconvenience/sadness…

        Those of us who’ve been harmed bu seeing a mental health professional have been discredited but the mere fact that we’ve been seen by a mental health professional. So we can’t effectively fight this on our own.
        So I’m afraid it’s hopeless. Very afraid in fact.

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        • The other thing I also think is, is a single doctor who writes articles on here ever going to help a commenter on this website who writes about their grievances (if there is any such professional here, kudos to you)? Even through MIA, they’re basically increasing their own credentials and experience. They become the “cool renegade dissident professionals”. Our lives are still going to the dogs.

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          • Since humans are ignorant of the fact that everything single being on this planet and universe is interconnected and interdependent you and I and all humans are on their own as far as getting help from any other human. This is to all of our detriment and to the detriment of all beings everywhere.
            So you can give up hope of anyone helping you OR you can start helping others understand that helping others IS getting help.

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        • @Blu:

          True. And that getting sued or getting into trouble part might be one reason why they tell patients: “there is no problem with psychiatric labelling, even HIV patients face stigma, people’s perception of you will only come from your behaviour etc.”.

          They’re essentially protecting themselves.

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  2. An Interpersonal Neurobiology (IPNB) as a common framework could reduce stigma and social rejection.

    IPNB emphasizes the interconnectedness of individuals within their social and environmental contexts. By promoting an understanding of how interpersonal experiences shape mental health, IPNB fosters empathy and reduces stigma. People are more likely to recognize that mental health challenges are influenced by a multitude of factors beyond an individual’s control, including their social interactions and environment. This understanding can lead to greater acceptance and support for those experiencing mental health difficulties, reducing stigma and social rejection.

    IPNB highlights the importance of nurturing supportive relationships for mental wellbeing. In a society where IPNB is the common framework, there would be greater recognition of the role that social connections play in promoting mental health. This emphasis on relationships could lead to the development of communities that prioritize empathy, compassion, and inclusion, thereby reducing social rejection of individuals with mental health diagnoses.

    IPNB considers mental health within a holistic framework that encompasses biological, psychological, social, and cultural factors. By acknowledging the complexity of mental health and the diversity of experiences within the human population, IPNB challenges simplistic and stigmatizing portrayals of mental illness. This broader perspective encourages a more nuanced understanding of mental health issues, reducing the tendency to stigmatize individuals based on diagnostic labels or genetic explanations.

    IPNB promotes mental health literacy by educating individuals about the factors that contribute to mental health and wellbeing. In a society where IPNB is widely embraced, there would be greater awareness of the impact of social stigma on individuals with mental health diagnoses. This increased awareness could lead to efforts to challenge stigma through education, advocacy, and the promotion of positive portrayals of mental health in the media and public discourse.

    By emphasizing integration, relationships, holistic perspectives, and mental health literacy, IPNB as a common framework could contribute to reducing stigma and social rejection of individuals with mental health diagnoses.

    We need and deserve this!

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  3. Most people fear (stigmatize) illness of any kind on some level because they don’t like being reminded of their own vulnerability. Therefore, framing people’s thoughts and feelings as ‘psychopathology’ (a medicalized concept) only serves to increase stigma which subsequently prompts people to distance themselves from something that causes them too much anxiety.

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  4. CORRECTION: Framing distressing thoughts, feelings and behaviors ‘psychiatrically’ more often than not causes people to distance themselves (out of fear) from people who’ve been diagnosed ‘psychiatrically’ (biologically rooted or not), people who otherwise would be seen as simply having a hard time.

    So, unfortunately, the final upshot from framing psychological problems as ‘biologically rooted’ actually INCREASES stigma, an unintended but nevertheless devastating consequence for persons simply seeking help.

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  5. Yes, however, Interpersonal Neurobiology (IPNB) offers a humane alternate paradigm to the shame-based one you describe. IPNB stigma busting, non-pathologizing, and science-based. It also strongly suggests the mainstream behavioral health industry is more a source of additional harm than a solution.

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    • “It [Interpersonal Neurobiolgy] also strongly suggsets that the mainstream behavioral health industry is more a source of additional harm than a solution.”

      I can attest to that. The trauma of being a psychiatric patient as an adult was far worse than what I lived through as a child: domestic violence, parental neglect, toxic school environments.

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    • The trauma of being a psychiatric patient as an adult was worse than what I lived through as a kid because when I was a kid I wasn’t burdened with the demoralizing (and bullshit) notion that something was wrong with me.

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