JHSPH studies stigma of addiction, mental illness

By ALIZAY JALISI | October 16, 2014

The stereotypical portrayals of people suffering from addiction and mental illness have become prevalent in the brains of many Americans due to messages conveyed by TV shows, addiction or depression recovery projects and brochures advertising antidepressants. These stereotypes are the root of a study conducted by Colleen Barry, associate professor and associate chair for research and practice in the Department of Health and Policy at the Bloomberg School of Public Health (JHSPH) titled “Discrimination, Treatment Effectiveness and Policy: Public Views About Drug Addiction and Mental Illness.”

The result of Dr. Barry’s study concluded that the general opinion of Americans is that drug addiction is much less socially acceptable than mental illness.

“The public views individuals’ struggles with addiction as the consequence of their own poor choices. While there is still a lot of stigma about mental illness, progress has been made in part as people have become more willing to talk about their own experiences. It is now much more okay than it used to be to openly discuss being on an antidepressant, for example,” Barry said.

Between Oct. 30 and Dec. 2 of 2013, Dr. Barry’s group surveyed 709 Americans about their attitudes towards people suffering from mental illness and from drug addiction. The study asked questions such as “Are you willing to marry into a family with history of drug addiction?” and “Would you work with someone with a mental illness?”

Barry described her team’s motivations behind this project, explaining that understanding public views of these health issues is a crucial step to resolving them.

“To figure out how to solve a major public health problem like drug addiction, it is important to first figure out how Americans view it,” Barry said. “Our findings suggest we have a long way to go to convince the public that drug addiction is a treatable condition and to persuade them that public policy can play an important role in reducing addiction.”

The questions of the study asked for yes or no answers and did not target any particular form of addiction or illness, such as schizophrenia or alcohol addiction. However, the researchers speculate that results would have been skewed if they had asked the public questions such as “Would you work with someone with Generalized Anxiety Disorder?” as opposed to “Would you work with someone with schizophrenia?” because of the stereotypes associated with people suffering from each respective illness.

The results of the study revealed that only 22 percent of people surveyed were willing to work closely with someone suffering from drug addiction, yet 62 percent were willing to work closely with someone suffering from mental illness.

Even despite this discrepancy, attitudes toward mental illness have not always been relatively supportive. Public sentiments towards patients of mental illness are evolving; USA Today reported in a June 2014 article that Medicare allots less sick days for mental health issue than those for physical health. The Affordable Care Act (signed into law in 2010 by U.S. President Barack Obama) in contrast demands that health insurance companies provide equal coverage for physical and mental health issues.

Attitudes toward drug addiction are more stagnant. A study conducted between 1992 and 2012 by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s National Drug and Alcohol Treatment Service showed that of the 23.2 million people in need of treatment for substance abuse, only 2.4 million received treatment at a specialty facility.

Regardless of the distinctions made between mental illness and addiction, Dr. Barry’s study reveals that a negative stigma persists for each illness.

“Less than a third of Americans believed that with treatment, recovery from either mental illness or addiction was possible. This is unfortunate because a key part of reducing stigma is convincing people that treatment can work,” says Barry.

How can the American public break down its stigma against sufferers of mental illness and substance abuse? Barry argues that shedding mass perceptions that all drug addicts are homeless, dangerous and slaves to their addictions, or that all sufferers of mental illness are crazy and hopeless, is the first step to recognizing that substance abuse and mental illness do not discriminate across barriers of race, age or socioeconomic status.

“It is critical that we put a human face on this issue to encourage the public to develop a broader view about who suffers from drug addiction than what they see typically on the news. When we think about the epidemic of prescription pain medication addiction in this country, it is clear that people from all walks of life can struggle with addiction,” Barry said.

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