Portraying mental illness and drug addiction as treatable health conditions: effects of a randomized experiment on stigma and discrimination

Soc Sci Med. 2015 Feb:126:73-85. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2014.12.010. Epub 2014 Dec 5.


Despite significant advances in treatment, stigma and discrimination toward persons with mental illness and drug addiction have remained constant in past decades. Prior work suggests that portraying other stigmatized health conditions (i.e., HIV/AIDS) as treatable can improve public attitudes toward those affected. Our study compared the effects of vignettes portraying persons with untreated and symptomatic versus successfully treated and asymptomatic mental illness and drug addiction on several dimensions of public attitudes about these conditions. We conducted a survey-embedded randomized experiment using a national sample (N = 3940) from an online panel. Respondents were randomly assigned to read one of ten vignettes. Vignette one was a control vignette, vignettes 2-5 portrayed individuals with untreated schizophrenia, depression, prescription pain medication addiction and heroin addiction, and vignettes 6-10 portrayed successfully treated individuals with the same conditions. After reading the randomly assigned vignette, respondents answered questions about their attitudes related to mental illness or drug addiction. Portrayals of untreated and symptomatic schizophrenia, depression, and heroin addiction heightened negative public attitudes toward persons with mental illness and drug addiction. In contrast, portrayals of successfully treated schizophrenia, prescription painkiller addiction, and heroin addiction led to less desire for social distance, greater belief in the effectiveness of treatment, and less willingness to discriminate against persons with these conditions. Portrayal of persons with successfully treated mental illness and drug addiction is a promising strategy for reducing stigma and discrimination toward persons with these conditions and improving public perceptions of treatment effectiveness.

Keywords: Addiction; Discrimination; Mental illness; Stigma; Substance use.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Attitude to Health*
  • Culture
  • Data Collection
  • Diagnosis, Dual (Psychiatry)
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mental Disorders / therapy*
  • Middle Aged
  • Schizophrenia / therapy
  • Social Discrimination / psychology*
  • Social Stigma*
  • Substance-Related Disorders / psychology
  • Substance-Related Disorders / therapy*
  • Young Adult