Why does the general public continue to believe that mentally ill people are more dangerous than those without mental illness?
Scientists at the University of Basel and the University Psychiatric Clinics Basel sought to find out how dangerous the general public considers mentally ill people to be and which factors influence this perception.
Although a small number of mental illnesses can lead to a relatively increased risk of violence, most people with mental disorders are not violent.
People with mental illnesses suffer from severe social stigma and often avoid necessary treatment because of it. In addition to the actual symptoms of disease, societal discrimination leads to further conditions such as anxiety, stress, and low self-esteem among those affected.
“We want to understand whether the stigma arises from noticing symptoms or from finding out that somebody has had psychiatric treatment,” said Professor Christian Huber.
To this end, they surveyed 10,000 people in the Swiss canton of Basel Stadt. The respondents had to estimate how dangerous they considered people in a number of fictional case histories to be.
Half of the cases portrayed symptoms of various mental illnesses (alcohol dependency, psychosis, borderline personality disorder), while the others reported on the location where psychiatric treatment took place (general hospital with psychiatric wards, psychiatric hospital, psychiatric hospital with forensic wards).
In the case histories describing only the location of the treatment, as well as in those featuring a description of symptoms and behavioral problems, the patients were generally regarded as dangerous.
A description of symptoms led to a stronger attribution of danger; people with symptoms of alcohol dependency were perceived as particularly threatening. Treatment in a general hospital, however, was associated with a lower dangerousness attribution.
Furthermore, it was found that people who had had personal contact with psychiatry or with psychiatric patients in the past generally rated the potential for danger as lower.
The study, which appears in the journal Scientific Reports, shows that how patients are treated in psychiatry influences the prejudices they have to deal with.
Indeed, treatment in a psychiatric unit, which is included in a general hospital, was associated with a lower dangerousness attribution than treatment in a specialized psychiatric clinic. Moreover, people who had personal contact with psychiatry or with psychiatric patients in the past generally rated the potential for danger as lower.
The authors of the study argue that contact between the general public and mentally ill people should be encouraged in order to break down prejudices.
“Our results show that campaigns to destigmatize public perception should be realistic about the low risk that people with mental illnesses pose.”
And a shift in inpatient psychiatric treatment from independent clinics to general hospitals with psychiatric wards could encourage destigmatization, they added.
Source: University of Basel/EurekAlert