Public Conceptions of Serious Mental Illness and Substance Abuse, Their Causes and Treatments

Findings from the 1996 General Social Survey

This study examines the degree to which lay beliefs about the causes of disorders may predict beliefs about what constitutes appropriate treatment. The authors analyzed randomized vignette data from the MacArthur Mental Health Module of the 1996 General Social Survey (n=1,010). Beliefs in biological causes (i.e., chemical imbalance, genes) were significantly associated with the endorsement of professional, biologically-focused treatments (e.g., prescription medication, psychiatrists and mental hospital admissions). Belief that the way a person was raised was the cause of a condition was the only nonbiologically-based causal belief associated with any treatment recommendations (talking to a clergy member).

Lay beliefs about the biological versus nonbiological causes of mental and substance abuse disorders are related to beliefs regarding appropriate treatment. The authors suggest areas for further research with regard to better understanding this relationship in an effort to construct effective messages promoting treatment for mental health and substance abuse disorders.