Baylor professor works to minimize stigmas around mental illnesses

In his work, “When Do Biological Attributions of Mental Illness Reduce Stigma?,” published in the academic journal “Society and Mental Health,” Assistant professor of sociology Dr. Matthew Andersson focused on stigma involving individuals with depression, schizophrenia and alcoholism. Jessica Hubble | Multimedia Editor

By Thomas Moran | Staff Writer

Though the debate about the causes of mental illness is still prevalent today, one Baylor study suggests the belief that mental illness is biologically caused has become more common in recent years among both the public and health professionals. However, reducing negative stigmas surrounding mental illness might be more effective with a neutral approach.

Assistant professor of sociology Dr. Matthew Andersson received his doctorate in sociology from the University of Iowa. He came to Baylor after completing his post-doctoral work at Yale University where his interest in the social factors that influence mental and physical health was solidified.

Though he received his undergraduate degrees in chemistry and psychology, Andersson eventually found himself to be more interested in the social understanding humans than organic science.

“I started researching the stigmatization of different mental illnesses during my last year at Iowa with collaborator and co-author Sarah Harkness, an assistant professor at Iowa sociology,” Andersson said.

In his work, “When Do Biological Attributions of Mental Illness Reduce Stigma?,” published in the academic journal “Society and Mental Health,” Andersson focused on stigma involving individuals with depression, schizophrenia and alcoholism.

Andersson and fellow author Harkness questioned why anti-stigma campaigns that focused on biological beliefs were not completely affective in reducing social stigmas surrounding mental illnesses.

“The goal of our research was to figure out why biological beliefs about mental illness, namely beliefs that organic factors like chemical imbalance or genetic abnormality cause mental illness, weren’t doing such a great job at increasing the social acceptance of individuals suffering from depression or alcoholism,” Andersson said.

According to Andersson, negative stigmas directed at mental illness can be reflected in many ways. Creating social distance, avoiding friendships and avoiding employment with individuals affected by mental illnesses are just a few examples of how stigmatizing mental illness negatively impacts those affected.

However, negative stigmatizing comes from those with biological beliefs and non-biological beliefs about the causes of mental illnesses, though most people have mixed beliefs, Andersson said.

“Biological beliefs have to do with organic factors possible causing mental illness, while non-biological beliefs have to do [with] thinking something like the way someone was raised, life stress they’re experiencing or even something like God’s will is causing their mental illness,” Andersson said. “The only singular belief that seems robustly linked to wanting distance from an ill person or thinking they’re dangerous is thinking that their character is morally or basically flawed.”

No other other singular beliefs showed links to stigmas. Andersson and Harkness tried a new research approach with which they compared mixed beliefs, rather than solely biological, to see if stigmas might be affected.

“What we found is that anti-stigma campaigns might benefit from being more accurate about how multiple beliefs might matter at once,” Andersson said. “For instance, we found that a belief that chemical imbalance is responsible for mental illness might do better at lowering stigma if personal weakness or bad character could be taken out of the picture, and if life stresses are maybe brought in as a reason for making those chemical imbalances worse.”

Andersson suggests that a more neutral approach to anti-stigma campaigns might be greatly beneficial to the movement.

“Maybe campaigns could highlight the social contexts and causes of those imbalances instead of the imbalances themselves,” Andersson said. “That’s just one idea that seems consistent with our findings on which combinations of beliefs seem linked to lowered stigma.”

Houston senior Ilse Vielma is passionate about reducing negative stigmas associated with mental illnesses because she has seen the the detrimental effects of such stigmas among minority groups, which is part of the reason she chose to major in psychology.

“I think it’s important because opening up the dialogue about it is the first step in getting people the help that they need,” Vielma said. “I think it’s important to share that mental illness can be both rooted in biology, but also environmental factors. Either way it’s important to have the conversation either way.”