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Mental illness drug ads no cure for stigma

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The medicalization of such mental illnesses as depression and bipolar disorder, which have seen prescription drug advertisements on TV skyrocket since such advertising became permissible in 1997, has done nothing to remove the harmful stigma attached to the illnesses, according to sociologists from Indiana University and the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.

Mental Health image

Researchers sought to see if attitudes toward mental illnesses changed since the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued new guidelines allowing pharmaceutical companies to air TV ads.

"The findings fly in the face of current thinking about ways that stigma can be reduced," said Peggy Thoits, Virginia L. Roberts Professor of Sociology in IU's College of Arts and Sciences. Stigma has posed a steadfast obstacle to the treatment of many mental health illnesses.

Negative perceptions of mental illness color the support and advice people get from their friends, family and even their physicians and can create a reluctance to seek help. The study by Thoits and lead author Andrew R. Payton, graduate student at University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, sought to see if attitudes toward mental illness have changed since the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued new guidelines allowing pharmaceutical companies to air TV ads. Theoretically, when a condition such as depression comes to be viewed as a treatable medical condition instead of a moral failing or spiritual condition, this should reduce the blame and stigma attached to depression. The researchers examined the Mental Health Modules in the General Social Survey during these intervening years and saw no change in attitudes toward people with mental illness, specifically when they compared depression, which was a focus of many TV commercials, to schizophrenia, for which no drugs have been advertised.

"We're making a big assumption, that marketing drugs to treat some these conditions is actually penetrating the consciousness of viewers, giving them the ability to recognize symptoms and conceptualize them as disorders and to see that these disorders can be relieved essentially with drugs," Thoits said.

The study was presented recently at the American Sociological Association's annual meeting in August.

To read more articles from the Department of Sociology, in the College of Arts and Sciences at IU Bloomington, visit http://newsinfo.iu.edu/cat/page/normal/468.html.