Bernice A. Pescosolido, PhD, of Indiana University and director of the Indiana Consortium for Mental Health Services Research, has focused her research and teaching on social issues in health, illness and healing. More specifically, Pescosolido’s research agenda addresses how social networks connect individuals to their communities and to institutional structures, providing the “wires” through which people’s attitudes and actions are influenced.
Her recent study is featured in the May 2013 issue of the American Journal of Public Health, a special issue with commentary and research dedicated to mental health stigma. Pescosolido’s global study analyzes public sentiment towards mental illness and found that while many have a good understanding of mental illness, public stigmas still persist. Public Health Newswire asked Pescosolido about her work.
Q. What is mental health stigma and why is it an important public health concern?
Stigma is an ancient word that literally means a “mark” distinguishing individuals one from another. In this case, people with mental illness are marked as different, and more importantly, are devalued, encounter prejudice and experience discrimination because of their illness.
Q. Your study analyzes public knowledge of and prejudices toward people with mental illnesses. What did you learn?
The public across most societies has come to understand that mental illness is a disease and that treatment is useful and should be sought out. However, we also learned that, even in the most liberal, tolerant countries, the majority of the public expresses stigmatizing attitudes and a willingness to exclude people with depression or schizophrenia from close, personal relationships and positions of authority, seeing them as unpredictable.
Q. Data for your study were collected from 16 countries, including the U.S. and countries in Europe, Africa and Asia. Are there key differences you noticed cross-culturally in terms of the public’s response to mental illness?
Our study focused on whether there was a common set of problems that individuals with mental illness might face in their communities because of the stigma attached to mental illness. We called this the “backbone” because there were commonalities no matter whether we focused on the U.S., Europe, Africa or Asia. However, some prejudices do appear to be more relevant in some countries than others. For example, at first glance it appears that telling other people that you have a mental illness seems to raise more concerns in Hungary, Brazil or Cyprus than in other countries. On the other hand, the standard stereotype of people with mental illness as dangerous has not taken hold as much in Iceland or Germany as in other countries. Taking a hard look at these differences is the next step in our research.
Q. According to your results, many individuals have a solid understanding of mental illness in which they recognize, accept and endorse its treatment. What do you think is contributing to this awareness?
In our global world, information travels across country borders much more easily now than in the past. In most countries, there have been major efforts to get the information out that mental illness is real and can be treated. They have heard the message and accept it; however, whether they believe it applies to them or to others may be another question if the situation arises. We need more “on the ground” studies to see how these cultural ideas take hold when people experience the onset of mental health problems. We have tried to document the cultural tolerance that people will face if it happens to them.
Q. Findings from your study also indicate that mental health prejudices and stigmas still persist. What kind of dangers do you foresee if these stigmas and prejudices are not corrected?
We know that stigma translates into loss for individuals, families and societies. Stigma prevents individuals from recovering from mental illness, both because treatment facilities are not well funded and because community exclusion lessens the richness of their lives. Even more dramatically, recent studies have demonstrated that the life expectancy of people with mental illness can be reduced anywhere from six to 25 years depending on where you live. This is a major loss of talent and productivity for society.