January 5, 2022 - Podcast

Episode 213—Addressing mental health and stigma

Indiana University will soon establish the Irsay Family Research Institute, designed to be the leading national center for addressing stigma surrounding mental health and other health challenges, thanks to a $3 million gift from the Jim Irsay family, owners of the Indianapolis Colts. The Irsay Family Research Institute will be located on the IU Bloomington campus and will be led by IU Distinguished Professor of Sociology Bernice Pescosolido, director of IU’s Indiana Consortium for Mental Health Services Research. It will focus on providing direct support to research and researchers in health and health care areas; conducting more advanced interdisciplinary research in the sociomedical sciences; producing more graduates trained to work in the mental health field; raising awareness among all health care providers regarding how mental health issues complicate care for many serious illnesses; and informing broader local and national policy agendas relating to mental health and stigma. Through research, outreach, and education, Pescosolido says the institute will also build connections between existing health-related social sciences programs, centers, and researchers at IU to create opportunities for collaboration and innovation. A core mission, she says, is to target the stigma that pervades many health challenges, such as mental illness and reproductive problems, and deprives individuals of equitable treatment and adequate resources. The Irsay family’s gift is an extension of Kicking the Stigma, the Colts’ initiative to raise awareness around mental health disorders and remove the shame and stigma too often associated with these illnesses.

In related news, a new study from IU researchers found that for the first time since national data have been tracked in the United States, stigma toward people with depression has dropped significantly. However, the study found that stigma levels for other mental illnesses remained stagnant and, in some cases, have increased. The researchers say these findings can help shape the treatment of those with mental illness and assist anti-stigma programs and policies in providing support to those who need it most. Stigma affects many issues, including people’s reluctance to seek care, a shortage of mental health professionals, and the United States’ unwillingness to invest resources into the mental health sector, says Bernice Pescosolido, a co-author on the study. The good news from this study is that stigma can change, she says, and the change crosses all sectors of society and individuals. The study examined how stigma has changed over two decades for mental health disorders such as schizophrenia, major depression, and alcohol dependence. Public stigma was examined over a 22-year period at three key points: in 1996, 2006 and 2018. From 1996 to 2006, Americans reported increasing beliefs that mental health problems are caused by genetics or disruptions in the brain, rather than moral causes. While these findings reflected a greater belief in scientific causes, the researchers say that belief was not accompanied by a decrease in public rejection of those with mental illness. However, data from 2006 to 2018 revealed a statistically significant drop in rejection of people described as having major depression. Researchers say other disorders did not see a reduction in the public’s desire to distance themselves socially. In fact, public perceptions attributing dangerousness to schizophrenia and lack of morality to alcohol dependence increased. The researchers say these findings can be utilized to address the importance of mental health, including leveraging the educational system to introduce appropriate information on mental health, providing teachers with high-quality materials for health-related courses, and helping philanthropic groups develop programming.