Stigmatization of mental illness is widespread. Misunderstanding, bias, and discrimination associated with mental health concerns pervade even our closest interpersonal relationships, continue despite educational background or medical training, and create major obstacles to treatment and recovery within our health care system. It is essential to understand this stigma and its origins to prevent these negative outcomes.
As surprising at it may at first sound, some misconceptions about mental health are thought to stem from a centuries-old philosophical theory about the mind. According to this theory, often labeled the “dualist approach” to psychiatry, the mind is essentially distinct in kind from other physical systems.
If it is thought that mental disorders are not brain disorders because the mind is distinct from the physical brain, then this suggests that mental health should be treated very differently than other biological pathologies. Treating these things differently in this way, though, has costs that may perpetuate biases about mental health.
In one set of studies researchers consistently found that others are judged much more blameworthy for behaviors when they follow from mental disorders than physical disorders. For example, researchers found that breaking a promise is judged much less harshly when the excuse involved a physical reason, like complications from a car accident, than a psychological reason, like suffering from serious depression.
Other researchers found that even highly trained medical professionals display similar effects when evaluating clinical vignettes. Patients displaying symptoms perceived as more psychologically determined were regarded as more blameworthy, in greater control of, and more responsible for their behaviors than when symptoms were seen as biologically determined.