Frontiers

An Uncertain Revolution

Sociologist Jason Schnittker's new study shows that the rise of a genetic model of mental illness has not increased tolerance.
October 2008

New research by Associate Professor of Sociology Jason Schnittker reveals that although Americans’ beliefs about causes and treatments of mental illness have changed dramatically over the past decade, they have not become more tolerant of people battling these conditions. Schnittker’s study, “An Uncertain Revolution: Why the Rise of a Genetic Model of Mental Illness Has Not Increased Tolerance,” published online in the journal Social Science and Medicine, uses a 2006 replication of the 1996 General Social Survey Mental Health Module to explore the public’s beliefs about mental illness, especially in light of the rise of genetic arguments for these disorders.

“There was good reason to believe that Americans’ beliefs about mental illness had changed, considering the genetic revolution and the spread of direct-to-consumer advertising of psychiatric medicines,” Schnittker says. “We just didn’t know how they had changed. The General Social Survey, which is administered by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, provides especially high quality and representative data on this question thanks to rigorous sampling and interviewing methods.”

Schnittker’s study reports that many more Americans today believe that mental illnesses—ranging from depression to alcoholism to schizophrenia—have a genetic basis, and that these conditions can be treated medically. But the study also shows that increased support for genetic causes isn’t clearly associated with improvements in overall tolerance levels, which the survey assesses in terms of social distancing—for example, unwillingness to work, make friends or become neighbors with a person with a mental illness. 

"Many advocates for persons with mental illness thought that the genetic revolution would really pave the way for a new era of treatment and tolerance. They were partly correct, but in emphasizing the importance of genetics, they overlooked more complex possibilities." - Jason Schnittker

“In the past, people didn’t see these disorders as illnesses—they saw them in terms of bad character, personal weakness, or God’s will,” Schnittker says. “Many advocates for persons with mental illness thought that the genetic revolution would really pave the way for a new era of treatment and tolerance. They were partly correct, but in emphasizing the importance of genetics, they overlooked more complex possibilities. Believing that genes are responsible for mental illness doesn’t always increase tolerance.  It turns out that saying genes are responsible for depression is very different from saying genes are responsible for schizophrenia, and that difference has everything to do with Americans’ preconceptions about these specific disorders.”

Schnittker explains, for example, that depression was primarily viewed as a form of personal weakness. Recognizing that depression has a genetic component casts it as an illness and absolves those who suffer from depression of responsibility for their condition. However, the same increase in tolerance has not been extended to people suffering from schizophrenia. “Americans tend to view those with schizophrenia as threatening and potentially violent,” Schnittker says. “To recognize that their condition has genetic antecedents is suddenly to essentialize it. This has the effect of inflating the perceived threat, which is already overstated.”

The study also found evidence that Americans are more supportive of using psychiatric medicines than they were in the past, yet still harbor the view that these treatments aren’t likely to “cure” psychiatric disorders.

Schnittker writes that “complexity, rather than coherence,” inform perceptions about mental illness because they “tap beliefs about the person, the environment, and mortality as much as they tap beliefs about illness and biology.” He explains that these views are also intermixed with beliefs about the “other,” despite evidence that about half of all Americans will experience some sort of psychiatric disorder in their lifetime.

“Many psychiatric disorders are self-limiting and many are not severe,” he says. “But it’s actually not true that these conditions are epidemiologically rare.  It’s very difficult to change people’s minds about this misconception.”