If most people shun people with schizophrenia—and they do—every third person working professionally in the field of mental illness also keeps a distance.
The more exposure you have to schizophrenia, the less fearful you are. And if you’d had a mental illness yourself, you tend to be more understanding. Ignorance breeds fear breeds isolation.
Such surveys have long been collected by social scientists hoping to gauge stereotypes against other groups such as gays and substance abusers. This study, funded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and National Institute of Mental Health, is among the first in the United States to examine attitudes among mental health professionals vis-a-vis schizophrenia.
Mental health professionals given vignettes to read were asked if the person described would be welcome as a co-worker?
Would they see the individual with schizophrenia as able to make financial decisions?
It turns out that, among mental health workers, greater seniority tracks with positive attitudes.
35 percent of mental health workers and 70 percent of the public consider people with schizophrenia to be dangerous enough to keep at arm’s length.
That’s not to say that they don’t proceed with caution. They are careful, of course, yet they understand that you’re more apt to be attacked by a drunk or druggie.
That being said, the victims should be acknowledged, like the mental health worker killed here in Massachusetts, 25-year-old Stephanie Moulton, who was stabbed to death on a snow-covered January evening three years ago. Who can forget the images of her blood smeared vehicle?
When violence bursts, it seems abrupt, rash, unfathomable, unanswerable, as happened here. It’s tragic because it seems so unpremeditated.
The survey of 731 mental health professionals and 400 nonprofessionals in Washington state, reported in a study published online in Psychiatric Services, linked positive attitudes with having advanced degrees and, interestingly, reporting a mental illness themselves.
The findings were compared to some 400 adults taking the biennial national General Social Survey.
“The results suggest that the more exposure you have personally and professionally to mental illness, the more positive attitudes you’ll have,” Jennifer Stuber, the lead author of the paper and an assistant professor of social work at the University of Washington, was quoted as saying.
Experience can cut both ways however. Stuber said bias among mental health workers may sometimes hamper recovery.
“On one hand, it may be the case that mental health professionals become hardened, because they see people at their worst and become discouraged if treatment is slow,” she said.
“On the other hand, more experience may make mental health professionals more empathetic to their clients and aware of the possibility of recovery.”
The series of 30-minute online surveys was conducted with counselors, social workers, psychologists and case managers. What stood out was the realization that nearly a third of those surveyed had received a diagnosis of mental illness themselves.
Said Stuber: “This prior experience was associated with less negative attitudes, which has implications for how we think of the relevance of that experience in recruiting for a mental health workforce.”
While mental health professionals are more empathetic, a strong strain of stigmatizing attitudes persists. 40 percent of mental health providers and 70 percent of the general public agreed that they wouldn’t want someone with schizophrenia as a co-worker.
Stuber suggested training mental health providers to dispel false perceptions. “We know that mental illness alone isn’t a predictor of violence. But when combined with alcohol, drugs or abuse, a prior history of violence mental illness can be a contributing factor to violence,” she said.
I’ve seen these rash acts of violence first-hand. Why my sister went for the knife one day still mystifies, but I’ve come to understand that she’s not some sadistic killer. She has a neurobiological disease of the brain whose effects are devastating. And she is very well looked after in her group home.
For more information on this study, contact Stuber at firstname.lastname@example.org or 206-616-3874. It can be accessed through http://ps.psychiatryonline.org/article.aspx?articleid=1814533.
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Last reviewed: 5 Feb 2014