About The College Toolbox Project

The Science

Resurgence of Research on the Stigma of Mental Illness

In 1950, Shirley Star, a researcher at NORC at the University of Chicago, initiated the first major survey on mental illness in the U.S.  Building on this influential survey and the Study of Modern Living surveys, researchers at Indiana University initiated the National Stigma Study series beginning in 1996.  The goal of these studies is to learn how the public’s perceptions of and responses to mental illness have changed over time, and to understand how individuals who develop mental health problems recognize onset and seek help.
Some key findings include:

  • Overwhelmingly, the American public believes that mental health problems will improve with treatment, but if left untreated, these problems will not improve on their own.
  • The percentage of the public attributing major depression to neurobiological causes increased from 54% in 1996 to 67% in 2006.
  • In the 1996 and 2006 studies, the majority of the American public believed that, with the exception of depression, those experiencing mental health problems pose a threat for violence towards others.
  • Similar to the findings in the NSS series, across 16 countries in the SGC-MH Study, levels of recognition, acceptance of neurobiological attributions, and treatment endorsement were high.
  • Holding a belief in neurobiological causes for mental health disorders is generally unrelated to stigma.  Where associated, the effect was to increase, not decrease prejudicial attitudes and community rejection, calling into question the “disease like any other” educational approach to addressing widespread stigma.

After determining that although understanding of the causes of mental illness and of the efficacy of treatment had increased in the U.S., there had been no significant decrease in preferences for social distance and perceived dangerousness, IU researchers became part of the movement to take stigma reduction strategies in new directions.  Through organizations like Bring Change 2 Mind, and now U Bring Change 2 Mind targeting the student population, these scientific findings are being used to help advocates develop messages about mental illness and a College Toolkit that might be more effective in reducing stigma.

Related Publications

Public Report #1.
"Americans' Views of Mental Illness and Health at Century's End: Continuity and Change." B.A. Pescosolido, J.K. Martin, B.G. Link, S. Kikuzawa, G. Burgos, R. Swindle, and J.C. Phelan. Public Report on the MacArthur Mental Health Module, 1996 General Social Survey. Bloomington, IN. Indiana Consortium for Mental Health Services Research (2000).

Reprint #113.
"The 'Backbone' of Stigma: Identifying the Global Core of Public Prejudice Associated with Mental Illness." B.A. Pescosolido, T.R. Medina, J.K. Martin, and J.S. Long. American Journal of Public Health 103: 853-860 (2013).

Reprint #112.
"The Public Stigma of Mental Illness: What Do We Think; What Do We Know; What Can We Prove?" B.A. Pescosolido. Journal of Health and Social Behavior 54(1): 1-21 (2013).

Reprint #99
. "'A Disease Like Any Other'? A Decade of Change in Public Reactions to Schizophrenia, Depression, and Alcohol Dependence." B.A. Pescosolido, J.K. Martin, J.S. Long, T.R. Medina, J.C. Phelan, B.G. Link. American Journal of Psychiatry 167(11): 1321-1330 (2010).

Reprint #90
. "A Fresh Look at Recovery." B.A. Pescosolido. Psychiatric Services 59(1): 5 (2008).

Reprint #89
. "Public Knowledge and Assessment of Child Mental Health Problems: Findings from the National Stigma Study-Children." B.A. Pescosolido, P. Jensen, J.K. Martin, B. Perry, S. Olafsdottir, and D. Fettes. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry 47(3): 339-349 (2008).

Reprint #88
. "Mental Illness Careers in an Era of Change." E.K. Pavalko, C.M. Harding, and B.A. Pescosolido. Social Problems 54(4): 504-522 (2007).

Reprint #87
. "Comparison of Public Attributions, Attitudes, and Stigma in Regard to Depression Among Children and Adults." B.L. Perry, B.A. Pescosolido, J.K. Martin, J.D. McLeod and P.S. Jensen. Psychiatric Services 58(5) 632-635 (2007).

Reprint #86
. "Public Knowledge, Beliefs, and Treatment Preferences Concerning Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder." J.D. McLeod, D.L. Fettes, P.S. Jensen, B.A. Pescosolido and J.K. Martin. Psychiatric Services 58(5): 626-631 (2007).

Reprint #85
. "Perceived Dangerousness of Children with Mental Health Problems and Support for Coerced Treatment." B.A. Pescosolido, D.L. Fettes, J.K. Martin, J. Monahan and J.D. McLeod. Psychiatric Services 58(5): 619-625 (2007).

Reprint #84
. "Stigmatizing Attitudes and Beliefs About Treatment and Psychiatric Medications for Children and Mental Illness." B.A. Pescosolido, D.L. Fettes, J.K. Martin, J.D. McLeod, and P.S. Jensen. Psychiatric Services 58(5): 613-618 (2007).

Reprint #83
. "Culture, Children, and Mental Health Treatment: Special Section on the National Stigma Study- Children." B.A. Pescosolido. Psychiatric Services 58(5): 611-612 (2007).

Reprint #82
. "The Construction of Fear: Americans' Preferences for Social Distance From Children and Adolescents with Mental Health Problems." J.K. Martin, B.A. Pescosolido, S. Olafsdottir, and J.D. McLeod. Journal of Health and Social Behavior 48(March): 50-67 (2007).

Reprint #39
. "Nature, Nurture, Neither, Nor?: Black-White Differences in Beliefs about the Causes and Appropriate Treatment of Mental Illness." J. Schnittker, J. Freese, and B. Powell. Social Forces 78(3): 1101-30 (2000).

Reprint #38
. "Of Fear and Loathing: The Role of 'Disturbing Behavior,' Labels, and Causal Attributions in Shaping Public Attitudes Toward People with Mental Illness," J.K. Martin, B.A. Pescosolido, and S.A. Tuch. Journal of Health and Social Behavior 41(2): 208-223 (2000).

Reprint #37
. "Responses to 'Nervous Breakdowns' in America over a 40-year Period: Mental Health Policy Implications." R. Swindle, K. Heller, B.A. Pescosolido, and S. Kikuzawa. American Psychologist 55(7): 740-749 (2000).

Reprint #36
. "Public Conceptions of Mental Illness in 1950 and 1996: What is Mental Illness and is it to be Feared?" J.C. Phelan, B.G. Link, A. Stueve, and B.A. Pescosolido. Journal of Health and Social Behavior 41(2): 188-207 (2000).

Reprint #32
. "The Public's View of the Competence, Dangerousness, and Need for Legal Coercion Among Persons with Mental Illness," B.A. Pescosolido, J. Monahan, B. Link, A. Stueve, and S. Kikuzawa. American Journal of Public Health 89(9): 1339-1345 (1999).

Reprint #31
. "Public Conceptions of Mental Illness: Labels, Causes, Dangerousness and Social Distance," B. Link, J. Phelan, M. Bresnahan, A. Stueve, and B.A. Pescosolido. American Journal of Public Health 89(9): 1328-1333 (1999).