People’s attitudes and beliefs toward mental illness are not always accurate or positive. A person’s attitude towards mental illness influences how he or she interacts and shows sympathy or support towards people with mental disorders.
People’s attitudes and beliefs can also influence how the individual suffering with a disorder feels about his or herself and perceives personal problems and psychological distress, such as one’s level of comfort to confide in other people about his or her symptoms or difficulties.
Many people have a physical illness, such as cancer, heart disease, and diabetes; however, people tend to believe that physical illness is something out of the individual’s control, which releases the individual from the blame for his or her own illness. Positive beliefs about mental illness are likely to result in more supportive and inclusive behaviors, such as being willing to hire a person with a physical illness. Positive attitudes allow individuals with a physical illness a level of acceptance and freedom to reach out for help because they do not feel ashamed for their illness compared to illnesses that are viewed by society as a personal weakness.
There are misconceptions surrounding mental illnesses, which have multiple consequences for an individual suffering with a mental disorder and society. People may think that they know what mental illness is, but do not fully understand its level of impairment and debilitating effects for everyday living. People may believe that there is no hope or a successful treatment available for those suffering with a mental illness. Misconceptions surrounding mental illness are that people bring on their own problems, are weak, lack self-discipline, have “gone mad,” or that mental illness is not a real disease.
Misconceptions about mental illnesses fuel social stigmas (how people are labeled). If the greater society labels people with mental illness as being weak or at fault for their own illness, it can result in them being treated unfairly, shunned, or even oppressed by the society in which they live. People in society can exclude those with mental illness from social activities, avoid them, or overlook them for a job position, thus limiting their career opportunities and opportunities for social relationships. Because people with a mental illness can be fearful of being made to feel ashamed or excluded from society, it can influence whether the individual reaches out for help or continues with treatment or therapy.
In general, although in America people have begun to believe that mental illnesses can be treated and that people with a disorder can learn to live a normal life, this belief has not transpired into positive attitudes towards mental illness (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2012). In America, one study found that people are more likely to view mental illness and other behavioral problems as being a personal weakness rather than a real health problem. People are more comfortable if a person with mental illness is living next door or is a coworker, and less comfortable having any close relationship with an individual (e.g., a teacher or romantic relationship) with mental illness (Mental Health America, 2013).