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Mental illness – how we see it

Mental illness – how we see it

A new survey shows that most New Zealanders are sympathetic to people with experience of a mental illness and willing to have them as neighbours, workmates and friends.

However, compared to people with a physical illness, those with a mental illness are more likely to be seen as less trustworthy, less productive and less employable.

Professor Phil Gendall, head of Massey University’s Department of Marketing, says the survey shows that stigmatism of mental illness varies depending on the specific circumstances involved.

“For example, people are less willing to have a personal relationship with someone with a mental illness, to have them marry someone related to them, or to have them teach or look after children,” Professor Gendall says.

“Some even believe they should not be allowed to have children, to hold public office, or to supervise others at work. On the other hand, most people believe someone with experience of mental illness is just as intelligent as anyone else, and should be hired like any other person, if they are qualified for a job.

“Furthermore, this is a relative phenomenon. Some measure of stigmatism applies to anyone with an observable physical condition: stigmatism of mental illness is simply higher than that of physical illness."

Professor Gendall says one surprising result was the relatively high number (at least a third of those surveyed) who believed that people with schizophrenia or depression should be forced by law into medical or psychiatric treatment.

As many as 60 per cent thought people with schizophrenia should be forced by law to take prescribed medication and 50 per cent thought they should be forced to be examined at a clinic or by a doctor.

“This willingness to coerce seems rather high but is tempered by the knowledge that similarly high numbers considered people with schizophrenia or depression not very able to decide whether they should receive treatment."

He also notes a paradox in the findings: “Few respondents believed that schizophrenia or depression were something to be embarrassed about or kept secret. But between 40 and 50 per cent agreed that someone with these conditions would lose friends or opportunities if people knew they were having treatment. Perhaps getting treatment implies the condition has been officially diagnosed, which in turn implies a level of severity likely to result in stigmatisation. If so, it is not surprising that many with experience of mental illness do not seek treatment."

Professor Gendall says overall the survey results are in line with findings by the Ministry of Health and confirm that the Ministry’s Like minds, like mine advertising campaign has improved public attitudes to and understanding of mental health.

The survey was conducted between August and November last year and involved 1020 New Zealanders aged 18 and over. Participants were given three vignettes, describing schizophrenia, depression and asthma, to test whether stigmatism varies for different disorders and to compare attitudes to mental illness with those to a physical condition.

It is part of an international study of the stigmatism of mental illness, involving 16 countries. Professor Gendall notes that such research is not simply a matter of curiously: “Understanding the stigmatism of mental health will help to develop interventions designed to combat it."

The full report is available at:


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