Research on negative stereotypes about people with mental illnesses in Poland

New York Daily News front page. Friday, November 19, 1999. (source)

When people discover that someone has some type of mental illness or disorder they are automatically giving that person a label. Usually it affects their perception about that person’s sanity, working abilities, and sources of the problem. Even when a person appears to be qualified for a certain job that he or she is applying for, the employer will most likely reject that candidate when realizing that he or she is having mental problems, which might prevent that person from using their full potential or even cause some difficulties, for example, uncontrolled behavior during work. That is why, we are often subjected to the idea that those who struggle with their mental health, should not even apply for a job, as well as many other stereotypes, which change our perception on those people.

In order to investigate the extent to which people in Poland are relaying on some common stereotypes, a survey was conducted in Warsaw, the capital city, asking 150 people about their opinions about those who are affected by mental illnesses and disorders.

First of all, people were asked if they believe that the image of mentally unstable people presented in television and other media, is true. For this question, 50% of responders said that the image shown by media is usually not true. However, 44% expressed the opinion that in most cases, this image is a correct portrayal of people with mental illnesses or disorders. According to a different study, conducted in 2001, more than 90% of community college students admitted learning about mental illnesses just from movies. It is not a good sign, since barely any movies, even those focused on the topic of mental health, show a realistic, non-exaggerated depiction of mentally ill people. According to psychiatrist, Dr. Peter Byrne “Mental health stereotypes have not changed over a century of cinema. If anything, the comedy is crueler and the deranged psycho killer even more demonic”. Additionally, the survey investigated the effect of age and gender on the given responses. While no gender differences were seen, the age of a responding person could have affected their answer. From those who said that in most cases media show a correct portrayal of mentally ill people, 86% were below 25 years old.

Another question asked “Do you believe that a person with mental illness/disorder possess a threat for the society?” Most people (56%) answered that usually that person does not possess any threat. Nobody who took part in the survey chose the answer “No, they never possess a threat to society”. From all people 41% said that mentally ill people possess a threat, including 3%, saying that they always possess a threat. However, the mentioned 3% consists only of people below 25 years old, and nobody from older age groups chose that answer. Some differences in the choices of both genders are also visible. Men were more prone to choose the answer saying that mentally ill people always possess a threat to society, since out of 5 people who chose that answer, 4 were men. But are they right or do they depend too much on negative stereotypes? According to the Institute of Medicine “Although studies suggest a link between mental illnesses and violence, the contribution of people with mental illnesses to overall rates of violence is small, and further, the magnitude of the relationship is greatly exaggerated in the minds of the general population”.

Afterwards people were asked whether mentally ill people are incompetent at the workplace. In this case, 53% said that usually they are competent. From the rest of the responders, 41% said that usually people with mental illnesses or disorders are incompetent employees. However, 92% of those who chose this answer were people aged below 26 years old. From all the responders, 3% said that mentally ill people are never incompetent, of out which all (5 out of 5 who chose that answer) were aged 26–40 and over 40. The rest 3% responded that those people are always incompetent. In fact, people with mental illnesses are in most cases able to be very good employees, depending on the type and stage of the illness. However, the distrust coming from others at the workplace towards people who struggle with their mental health, is very likely to aggravate symptoms of the illness.

Next question asked people if they believe that people with mental diseases or disorders are guilty for their condition. It is a common stereotype, causing people to think that people who suffer from mental illnesses are too self-concerned and fragile to cope with their problems like others do. In reality, those diseases are a result of differences in person’s brain, genetics, stress (usually caused by traumatic event in their life), or even genetic mutations. It is important to remember that mentally unstable person should never be blamed for their conditions.

For this question, nobody from the responders chose the answer which said that those people should always be blamed for their illnesses. However, 9% of responders chose the answer saying that in most cases, people with mental illnesses are guilty for their disease. It is also noticeable that 89% of responders who chose this answers are below 15 years old. The highest percentage of people (66%) believe that in most cases mental health problems are not a fault of the person who have them. The rest (25%) believe that mentally ill people are never guilty for their conditions.

The last question asked whether people believe that mentally ill people are be able to recover from their disease. According to the research from the National Empowerment Center, even the most severe cases of mental illness have a recovery potential. Obviously, it is not possible in all cases, and sometimes it is the patient who makes the whole recovery process even more difficult, for example by refusing to take medications or attend therapy sessions. In the conducted survey 56% of people said that there is usually a chance of recovery. Additionally, 6% thinks that there is always a chance of returning to a normal state of health. Only 1% of all responders think that there is no possibility of recovery for people affected by mental illnesses. The rest (37 %) thinks that not always, but in most cases, the patient would not recover from their illness. An interesting observation is that all responders (100%), who answered that there is always a chance of recovery, are women. Although, there is no correlation of the age of a person to the answer they decided to choose.

To sum up, results of the survey confirm that some stereotypes about mentally ill people are present among people in Poland. The most common stereotype is the portrayal of mental diseases in media, which many people believe to be true. The stereotype that the least people believe in is that people with mental diseases or disorders are guilty for their condition. Some differences between both genders and different ages were also visible in certain answers. For example, women seemed to be more positive when it comes to recovery from mental illness compared to men. When it comes to the age differences, younger people (under 26 years old) tended to look more negatively on the people with mental health, by saying for example that they are usually incompetent at the workplace or that in most cases they are guilty for their condition.

It is important to remember that we should not believe in all the stereotypes presented to us, such as highly exaggerated movies, which aim not to show a real depiction of mental problems, but to interest people, usually by making a mentally ill person as unrealistically insane as possible.

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