Like the weather, stigma surrounding mental illness is something people complain a lot about but haven’t made much headway in changing, though not for lack of effort.
“Time to Change” was launched in October 2007 as England’s flagship campaign “to change attitudes and behavior toward people with mental health.” New Zealand, Australia, Scotland, Norway, Sweden and Denmark also have sponsored similar national campaigns. Closer to home, the Mental Health Commission of Canada is currently on tour with another approach to reducing stigma, a lecture program to get journalism students to think twice about what they write and the words they use to describe mental illness.
In a recent issue of the American Psychiatric Association’s journal, Psychiatric Services, author Patrick W. Corrigan, Psy.D., takes a thoughtful look at the role of public service announcements (PSAs) in reducing stigma and calls for studies “to determine whether this is a good investment” (“Where is the evidence supporting public service announcements to eliminate mental illness stigma?” January 2012). Corrigan says existing research provides “no meaningful evidence about the impact of PSAs, such as real-world change in prejudicial attitudes and discriminatory behaviors.” He raises questions about whether the "significant financial investments" that go into PSAs are better spent elsewhere.
Kings College London is collecting data from “Time to Change” in an effort to address this “meaningful evidence” void. In the meantime, it is already well-established that violent acts by individuals with severe mental illness are a significant cause of stigma. It is also well-established that treating people with serious mental illnesses significantly decreases their risk of committing violent acts.
PSAs are an upbeat, feel-good approach to reducing stigma, and we heartily hope that research finds the investment in them produces results. Even if it does, however, they are no substitute for treating the illnesses that lead to the acts that cause the stigma. In the words of Treatment Advocacy Center founder Dr. E. Fuller Torrey, “If violent behavior by mentally ill persons is an important cause of stigma, then reducing violent behavior should logically reduce the stigma.” In any search for activities where an investment in reducing stigma pays off, the impact of treatment shouldn't be overlooked.