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The Double-Edged Sword of Mental Health Research: How Scientific Progress Can Lead to Stigma

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green ribbonYou might think that scientific advances in our understanding of the causes of mental illness would result in reduced fear and stigma of people with mental health disorders.   According to a Professor of Psychology at the University of Melbourne, this may not be the case.

There is increasing public acceptance of the view that much mental illness has biological and genetic origins. Biogenetic explanations like the “chemical imbalance” view of mental illness are an improvement over the outdated “moral failing” theory which would blame the person for his or her condition. Yet, both views can create a double-edge sword when discussing mental illness. As Nick Haslam, PhD, of University of Melbourne found in his synthesis of 53 studies on mental health stigma, people who attribute mental health problems to brain disease or heredity are more pessimistic about recovery, more willing to socially exclude affected people and more likely to see them as dangerous.  They are more fearful, angry and less socially accepting of people with mental illness.

In a different study of people with depression, those subjects who were led to believe their condition was the result of a chemical imbalance were more pessimistic about their chances of recovery and less confident of their ability to manage their depression.

A new generation of medications has made recovery a meaningful prospect for many people living with mental illness allowing them to be involved in the community, finding employment and attending school. Yet, the notion that we are solely at the mercy of our genes and biology can leave us feeling helpless and not in control of our own fates.  It can also lead others to view people as locked into those fates by outside forces not in our control.

Even if mental illnesses are biogenetically based, people living with these disorders need more than just the chemical re-balancing that medications can afford.  They need skills to help them manage their conditions, support from family, friends and professionals, opportunities to integrate in society, and most importantly a belief in the hope of recovery.

For more information on Dr. Haslam’s research, read his recent essay on The Conversation website: Brains, Genes and Chemical Imbalances – How Explanations of Mental Illness Affect Stigma


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