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The relationship of multiple aspects of stigma and personal contact with someone hospitalized for mental illness, in a nationally representative sample


Abstract The stigma of mental illness has been shown to be affected by personal contact with mental illness and by a belief in the genetic heritability of mental illness. We use data from a nationally representative survey to test whether the relationship of stigma with contact remains after taking into account the effects of genetic beliefs and other background characteristics. Contact was defined as a history of psychiatric hospitalization among respondents themselves, their family members, or their friends. Respondents answered questions about a vignette character with a mental illness. We found that respondents with contact felt less anger and blame toward the character, thought that the character had a more serious problem, and would want less social distance from the character, including both casual and intimate aspects of social distance. Respondents with contact were not significantly different from the general population in the degree to which they expressed sympathy, thought the problem would last a lifetime, or wanted to restrict reproduction. Thus, contact is associated with having a less ostracizing, critical attitude toward a stranger with mental illness. The results underscore the importance of this experienced group as a resource in fighting stigma in society. Since many people who have had a psychiatric hospitalization have not told their friends or family members about it, this lower-stigma group could be enlarged.

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