Biological Explanations May Not Reduce Mental Health Stigma

One man leans through a gate to shake another man's hand.A study in Society and Mental Health suggests many people continue to endorse stigmatizing and inaccurate beliefs about mental health diagnoses.

Recent public health campaigns have highlighted the purported biological origins of mental health diagnoses. Yet the emphasis on biological factors does not seem to reduce mental health stigma. The study found even people who endorse biological theories may also blame mental health conditions on “bad character.”

The Persistence of Stigmatizing Beliefs About Mental Health

The study had 1,147 randomly-selected participants. Researchers presented hypothetical stories involving people with depression, alcoholism, or schizophrenia. Participants then completed questions from the 2006 General Social Survey. The survey asked how participants thought six factors influenced the story character’s mental health. Those factors included:

  • Bad character
  • A chemical imbalance
  • Upbringing
  • Stressful life circumstances
  • Genetics
  • God’s will

Participants attributed both biological and sociological causes to mental health issues. For example, 23% of respondents thought depression was due to a combination of genetics, chemical imbalances, and stressful life circumstances. About 25% believed the same factors led to schizophrenia.

Participants were more likely to attribute alcoholism to personal failings. About 27% of participants said in addition to biological factors, poor upbringing and character contributed to alcohol abuse. Only divine intervention was excluded as a probable cause of alcoholism.

These results suggest that support for biological theories does not necessarily fight stigma. People typically believe several factors cause mental health issues. People may endorse stigmatizing beliefs and biological theories at the same time.

How Stigma Affects Views About People With Mental Health Diagnoses

Next, researchers assessed how participants felt about people with these mental health conditions. Participants answered how they would feel if someone like the person in the story:

  • Moved into a group home in the participants’ neighborhood
  • Moved next door
  • Became a close coworker
  • Spent an evening socializing with the participant
  • Became the participant’s friend
  • Married into the participant’s family

Participants who blamed a person’s character for their condition were more likely to react negatively to these scenarios. They were less willing to form relationships with people who have mental health conditions.

The study’s authors argue that biological theories about mental health don’t prevent stigma by themselves. Blaming a person’s character seems to be the key factor in mental health stigma. Reducing this belief may fight stigma, particularly for people who experience alcohol addiction.


  1. Andersson, M. A., & Harkness, S. K. (2017, October 25). When do biological attributions of mental illness reduce stigma? Using qualitative comparative analysis to contextualize attributions. Society and Mental Health. Doi:10.1177/2156869317733514
  2. Oversimplifying beliefs about causes of mental illness may hinder social acceptance. (2018, January 09). Retrieved from

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  • Harold A M

    January 24th, 2018 at 10:23 AM

    —–Biological Explanations May Not Reduce Mental Health Stigma —

    Of course not, “stigma: is a prejudice in the person declaring it, it is not flaw in the person at whom it is directed.

    Harold A M

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