Mental Health and Gender Stereotypes

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A study by psychologists at Purdue and Northwestern Universities (USA) have uncovered the effect of gender stereotypes on public perceptions of the mentally ill. Stereotypes of men as violent and women as depressed and docile affect the responses of the public and institutions to those suffering from mental health problems.

Contents

The Study

The psychologistsconducted a national survey to examine these stereotypes and the relationship to public reaction. Volunteers, varying widely in age, education, and socioeconomic status, read a case history of a person with mental illness. Some read about Brian, who was a stereotypical alcoholic, while others read about Karen, who showed all the classical symptoms of major depression. Still others read switched-around versions of these cases, so that Karen was the one abusing alcohol and Brian was depressed. The idea was to see if the typicality of Brian and Karen's symptoms (or lack of it) shaped the volunteers' reactions and judgments.

Combating Stereotypes

The underlying premise of the study was to see whether when the mentally ill act "out of character," violating the stereotype, they might arouse more of our sympathy and leniency; if it's more uncommon, it's probably more authentic. By contrast, people might be more apt to blame and stigmatize the mentally ill when they conform to stereotype.

Results

The volunteers showed similar patterns of reaction to those presumed from the outset by the psychologists. The volunteers expressed more anger and disgust - and less sympathy - toward Brian the alcoholic than toward Karen the alcoholic, and vice versa for depression. They were also more willing to help Brian and Karen when they suffered from an atypical disorder.

Revealingly, the volunteers were much more likely to view Brian's depression (and Karen's alcoholism) as genuine biological disorders as opposed to character defects or matters of personal irresponsibility.

This may have important implications for campaigners wishing to destigmatise mental health disorders.

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