Study: Public puts unfair stigma on mentally ill people as being dangerous

BASEL, Switzerland — Are people who suffer from mental illnesses a greater threat to the general public? The answer, of course, is better answered on an individual basis, but a new study finds that society nonetheless pegs mentally ill people, especially those whose symptoms are visible to others, to be more dangerous than they actually are.

Researchers at the University of Basel surveyed 10,000 Swiss individuals, hoping to determine whether discrimination against those with mental health issues could be primarily attributed to finding out that someone had gone through psychiatric treatment, or merely noticing symptoms.

Homeless man on street
A new study finds that the general public tends to view mentally ill people as more dangerous than they actually are.

Each participant was presented with a number of fictional case studies depicting individuals with a history of mental health problems in either context— i.e. those with manifested symptoms or a clinical record.

Examples of the former would include behaviors like alcohol dependency, psychosis, and borderline personality disorder, while the latter included a stay in a psychiatric hospital or ward.

It was found that while those showing clear symptoms of mental illness were significantly more likely to be seen as being a threat than those clinically-treated, both groups were generally seen as being unsafe.

Alcohol dependency, in particular, set off “danger” alarms in the minds of the participants.

Participants who had links to the practice of psychiatry, or had known an individual with psychiatric symptoms, were less likely to discriminate as a whole.

This finding is promising, as the majority of individuals with mental disorders do not exhibit violent behaviors, despite some stereotypes.

“Our results show that campaigns to destigmatize public perception should be realistic about the low risk that people with mental illnesses pose,” says lead researcher Christian Huber in a university news release.

Huber et al. suggest that stigmatization might further decrease if inpatient psychiatric treatment began to predominantly take place in psychiatric wards of hospitals, instead of separate clinics.

The study’s findings were published in the journal Scientific Reports.

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