Study: People with mental illness face stigma as potential sexual and romantic partners

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New research indicates that people with a mental illness are likely to face stigma and discrimination in the dating world.

The two-party study of 829 adults found that people with a mental illness were viewed as less attractive as both short-term hookups and long-term romantic partners.

People viewed a hypothetical partner with mental illness as significantly below average when it came to their social status, sexual desirability, and personality. The study also revealed that people tended to rate a potential partner with bipolar disorder more negatively than a potential partner with chronic asthma.

Men rated potential short-term partners with mental illness more positively than women on average. But there was no significant difference between the sexes when it came to potential long-term partners.

The study was published online in the scientific journal Evolutionary Psychological Science on March 7, 2017.

PsyPost interviewed the study’s author, Guy A. Boysen of McKendree University. Read his responses below:

PsyPost: Why were you interested in this topic?

Boysen: I teach at a small college and collaborate with students quite a bit, and this project was inspired by a student’s honors thesis. I had been studying mental illness stigma for years and she was interesting in people’s willingness to date individuals with mental disorders, so I proposed using evolutionary theory as the framework for the study. It’s a great example of how research ideas can emerge in unexpected ways.

To me, the really interesting part about this research is that there is this rather strange dynamic when you consider stigma research and evolutionary research together. There is no doubt that people stigmatize individuals with mental illness and want to keep them at a social distance. At the same time, mental illness seems to have been with us for all of recorded history and does not appear to be going anywhere in terms of its prevalence. So, what is going on with the fact that everyone – even nurses and psychiatrists, for example – says they want to keep a distance from people who have mental illness, but even people with the most severe forms of mental illness are passing on their genes?

Don’t get me wrong, there is a lot of genetic complexity and mental illness can be subtle or completely hidden, but there are a lot of interesting questions here. Are people’s beliefs of how they would react to an attractive person with mental illness wrong? Are there traits that people with mental illness have that outshine their symptoms? Does immediate passion outweigh all other considerations?

What should the average person take away from your study?

Labeling someone as “mentally ill” is likely to make them less attractive in most people’s eyes. Being identified as having a mental illness is especially likely to hurt evaluations of a person as a long-term partner. There are lots of types of mental illness, however, and these effects are going to be different for highly stigmatized disorders like schizophrenia versus ones that are not stigmatized as much such as depression.

Are there any major caveats? What questions still need to be addressed?

We have no idea how this plays out in the real world. This study consisted of people giving theoretical answers to theoretical situations. In the bar on a Friday night, will hearing that the person you have been chatting up was in psychiatric treatment last year affect your decision to go home with them? If you are in love with a person and moving in with them leads to the realization that they probably have OCD, does it matter at that point in the relationship?

In general, my future studies will focus on differences between men and women, variations in how specific disorders are perceived, and how certain symptoms of mental illness may actually increase a person’s attractiveness.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

I have actually gotten some negative feedback on this research from people who think that I, and other people studying evolutionary psychology, think that evolution is the only explanation for behavior – this is not even close to true. People go on dates, have sex, and fall in love based on their immediate feelings, but natural selection is one of the little biases that nudges people in certain directions – those little nudges add up across people and time.

I can’t stress this enough – this research is about describing stigma, not promoting it. Just because people may have an evolved tendency to avoid certain types of people as mates does not mean that it is right or desirable to do so.

The study was titled: “Stigma Toward People with Mental Illness as Potential Sexual and Romantic Partners“.

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