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The Stigma(s) of Mental Illness

Neuroskeptic iconNeuroskepticBy NeuroskepticFebruary 21, 2012 6:10 PM


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Fighting "the stigma of mental illness" is big business at the moment. But does "the stigma" really exist?


As I said back in 2010 :

There is a stigma of schizophrenia, and there's a stigma of depression, etc. but they're not the same stigma. We're told it's a myth that "the mentally ill are violent" - [but] no-one thinks depressed or anorexic people are violent. They think (roughly) that people with psychosis are. They have other equally silly opinions about each diagnosis, but there's no monolithic "stigma of mental illness".

Now a paper has come out which explores this idea in some detail: Stereotypes of mental disorders differ in competence and warmth. The title says it all : people have stereotypical views of people suffering from different mental disorders, but these stereotypes vary substantially.

The authors use the "Stereotype Content Model" framework, which despite the fancy name is very simple. On this view stereotypes are characterised by two dimensions, "competence" and "warmth". These are pretty self-explanatory. Warmth is whether you're seen as nice and friendly, or hostile and dangerous. Competence is whether you're thought to be good at it.

We all know that warmth and competence are distinct and indeed orthogonal concepts, and they crop up in other languages and in popular culture.

Anyway, in two Mechanical Turk online surveys of American adults, they first showed that respondants felt that "people with mental illness" were low on competence and (slightly) low on warmth, compared to other social and ethnic groups. That's similar to the ratings of the homeless, poor, and welfare recipients.

However in the second study, they asked about specific diagnoses, and this revealed a more complex pattern. I've shown the results above (colors are mine). There seemed to be four clusters. Mental retardation and Alzheimer's were perceived as warm, but incompetent; sociopaths and violent criminals were the opposite.

Schizophrenia clustered with homelessness and addiction in a worst-of-both-worlds category of low warmth and competence, while what could broadly be called "emotional" disorders, like bipolar, depression and anxiety, were rated more favorably. For what its worth, OCD was the least bad diagnosis.

These are interesting results. The only oddity about the method was that people weren't actually asked what they thought about these people; they were asked “In general, how much do Americans believe that..." This is, apparantly, standard procedure in this kind of stereotype research, but it seems a little strange to me.


Sadler, M., Meagor, E., and Kaye, K. (2012). Stereotypes of mental disorders differ in competence and warmth Social Science and Medicine DOI: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2011.12.019

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