National Alliance on Mental Illness
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Schizophrenia Survery Analysis: Public Attitudes

Americans are not sure what to think about schizophrenia. They are ambivalent; sometimes their views are contradictory. Knowledge can be accompanied by misunderstanding, goodwill by fear.

While the public is more concerned about schizophrenia than some other illnesses, schizophrenia falls in the middle of a ranked list when comparing the proportion of people who say they are "very concerned" about a given illness.

Cancer: 82%
Lou Gehrig's disease: 77%
Multiple sclerosis: 70%
Heart disease: 65%
Schizophrenia: 60%
Diabetes: 50%
Bipolar Disorder: 46%
High blood pressure: 37%
Depression: 33%
Asthma: 26%

People mistake, overemphasize, or underestimate certain symptoms of schizophrenia. The greatest misconception (64%) is that "split or multiple personalities" are symptoms of schizophrenia. Symptoms such as drug abuse (24%), alcohol abuse (23%), insomnia (41%), and disorganized speech (35%) are also not widely recognized.

Violent behavior as a symptom was selected by 60% of the public, which represents a fundamental fault line in how Americans view schizophrenia and other mental illnesses. Ironically, most individuals with schizophrenia are not prone to violence; they typically withdraw from social interaction and simply prefer to be left alone.

The U.S. Surgeon General reported ten years ago that although some research exists to support public concern, "the overall likelihood of violence is low" and the "overall contribution of mental disorders to the total level of violence in society is exceptionally small." The "greatest risk" is from persons dually diagnosed with both a mental illness and a substance abuse disorder. There is also a "small elevation of risk" for persons with severe disorders such as psychosis, "especially if they are noncompliant with their medication."

Other studies support the U.S. Surgeon General's basic assessment and the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) has noted that substance abuse "always increases violent behavior, regardless of the presence of schizophrenia." Meanwhile, people with serious mental illnesses are as many as ten times more likely to be victims of violence than the general public.

In any case, when it comes to perception, treatment is key.

Public attitudes toward people living with schizophrenia hinge on whether or not those people are receiving treatment. People are inclined to "distance themselves" dramatically from people not receiving treatment. Even though people understand that schizophrenia is a medical illness, the survey indicates that there are limits to openness.

  • 79% of people would want a friend to tell them if they were diagnosed with schizophrenia, but only 46% say they would tell friends if they themselves were diagnosed.
  • 27% would be embarrassed to tell others if one of their own family members was diagnosed.
  • 80% expressed discomfort with the prospect of dating someone with schizophrenia who has not received treatment, compared to only 49% if the person has (received treatment).
  • 77% would feel uncomfortable working with a person who has not received treatment, compared to only 24% if a person has.
  • 80% would feel uncomfortable working for a person who has not received treatment, compared to only 34% if a person has.
  • 76% would simply be uncomfortable around a person who has not received treatment, compared to only 23% if a person has.
  • 71% would be afraid for their safety around person who has not received treatment, compared to only 21% if a person has.

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