September 27, 2000
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - Americans increasingly associate mental illness with the potential for violence despite evidence the mentally ill are not violence-prone, according to a study that traced public perceptions over four decades.
The researchers said their findings pose a contradiction because they also discovered that the public has gained a deeper understanding of the causes of mental illnesses and recognizes that such disorders can be successfully treated.
The perceived link between mental illness and violence could lie in television and films that sensationalize murders committed by mentally ill persons, they said.
"We really do need to understand how the media shapes these attitudes because there are concerns that they are having an impact," said Bernice A. Pescosolido, an Indiana University professor who co-authored the study released Wednesday.
She said previous research has shown that people with mental illnesses are no more likely to commit violent acts than the general population.
The joint study by Indiana University and Columbia University found that 12.1 percent of Americans surveyed in 1996 perceived people with mental illnesses as "violent, dangerous, frightening". That's nearly twice the 7.2 percent who expressed such concerns in 1950.
The findings stand in contrast to the study's other conclusions that the public has a growing understanding that genetic and stress-related factors can cause mental illness.
While the percentage of people who linked mental illnesses to violence is small, the study found a growing acceptance for using legal means to commit people with mental illnesses if they are perceived as a threat to others. About 95 percent of respondents supported such actions in four of five categories of possible mental health problems.
Meanwhile, nearly half (48.4 percent) said they would be unwilling to interact with a person with schizophrenia and 37.4 percent said they would avoid interacting with someone with major depression.
The research compared surveys taken in 1950, 1957, 1976 and 1996. The 1996 survey quizzed about 1,444 people, finding that more than half know someone who has been hospitalized for a mental illness.
About a third also said they once were on the verge of a nervous breakdown or had another mental health problem.
The findings are evidence that negative portrayals of the mentally ill on television and in movies have played a large role in influencing the public's view of mental illness, said Cecelia Vergaretti, senior director of community services for the National Mental Health Association, which represents about 350 organizations nationwide.
She said other studies have shown that the mass media tends to characterize people with mental illnesses as "violent or evil."
"I think the media has perpetuated this myth and this really shows that we have our work cut out for us in combatting that perception," she said.
Copyright 2000 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.