Political conservatives tend to hold more negative stereotypes of people with mental illnesses, in comparison to moderates and liberals, which may lead them to engage in more discrimination against the mentally ill, according to a study published in the International Journal of Social Psychiatry.
Serious mental illnesses, such as major depression, bipolar disorder, PTSD, panic disorder, and schizophrenia, remain highly stigmatized. Common negative stereotypes about the mentally ill include beliefs that they are dangerous and untreatable. Previous research has found conservatives to hold more stigmatized views of the mentally ill than others. Right Wing Authoritarianism (RWA) is a dimension of political ideology emphasizing obedience to traditional authority and hostility toward stigmatized groups. People who score highly on measures of RWA tend to be more prejudiced toward a variety of minority groups.
Researchers Joseph DeLuca and Philip Yanos, of the City University of New York, conducted a study designed to help understand how political attitudes impact stereotyped beliefs about the mentally ill.
“While the prevalence of mental health stigma is clear, the reasons why people hold stigmatizing attitudes are less well understood,” the researchers explained.
A total of 505 residents of New York state (including 371 college students and 132 other adults recruited online) responded to a survey in which they answered questions about their political opinions and their beliefs and attitudes about people with mental illness.
Political conservatism was measured in two ways. First, participants identified themselves as either conservative, moderate, or liberal. Second, they answered questions designed to measure RWA beliefs. On both measures, more politically conservative people tended to hold the most stigmatized beliefs about the mentally ill. Importantly, conservatives also tended to put the most social distance between themselves and mentally ill people, being more likely to say that they would not want to work with, live near, or be friends with a person with a mental illness.
The researchers used statistical modeling techniques to demonstrate that the relationship between conservatism and this sense of social distance may be explained by its relationship with stereotyping. Conservatives are more likely to hold negative stereotypes against the mentally ill, which in turn makes them want to avoid contact with members of this group.
The authors of the study conclude that mental illness may provoke a reaction of hostility in people high in RWA, which may in turn lead them to engage in more negative stereotyping as a means of distancing themselves from the stigmatized group. They suggest that conservatives are more prone to discriminate against the mentally ill because they view them as potentially threatening and therefore seek to avoid them. A more thorough understanding of the reasons that certain groups hold stereotyped and discriminatory attitudes towards the mentally ill may help to address the challenges facing this group in a political context.