The level of prejudice and discrimination toward people with serious mental illness or substance abuse problems didn't change over 10 years, a new study has found.
The findings raise questions about the effectiveness of campaigns to educate people about mental illness and suggest that new approaches may be needed, said the researchers at Indiana University and Columbia University.
"Prejudice and discrimination aren't moving. In fact, in some cases, it may be increasing. It's time to stand back and rethink our approach," Indiana University sociologist Bernice Pescosolido said.
She and her colleagues compared the attitudes of people in 1996 and 2006. During this period, there was a major push to make Americans more aware of the genetic and medical explanations for conditions such as depression, schizophrenia and substance abuse.
About 1,956 adults who took part in the 1996 and 2006 General Social Survey listened to a short piece featuring a person who had major depression, schizophrenia or alcohol dependency, and then answered a series of questions.
Among the key findings:
The number of participants who attributed major depression to neurobiological causes was 54% in 1996 and 67% in 2006.
There was an increase in the proportion of participants who supported treatment from a doctor, and more specifically from a psychiatrist, for treatment of alcohol dependence (from 61% in 1996 to 79% in 2006) and major depression (from 75% in 1996 to 85% in 2006).
People who believed that mental illness and substance abuse had neurobiological causes were more likely to be in favour of providing treatment. But these people were no less likely to stigmatise patients with mental illness or substance abuse problems.
The study findings were published online in the American Journal of Psychiatry.
Efforts to reduce stigma should focus on the person rather than the disease, and emphasise the abilities of people with mental health problems, Pescosolido suggested.
"We need to involve groups in each community to talk about these issues, which affect nearly every family in America in some way. This is in everyone's interest," she added.