NEW YORK – How we feel toward a mentally ill person has a lot to do with how closely that person's symptoms hew to gender stereotypes, new research shows.
People "don't have much sympathy" for someone with more stereotypical problems, specifically a woman with major depression or an alcoholic man, Dr. Galen V. Bodenhausen of Northwestern University in Chicago explained in an interview. But when a person's symptoms are out of line with these stereotypes — say, an alcoholic woman or a depressed man — we will view them more positively, and want to help them, he said.
Stereotypes of the mentally ill fall into two categories: "violence/dangerousness" or "dependency/incompetence," Bodenhausen and Dr. James H. Wirth of Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana note. Men are more likely to be seen as violent, while women are typically seen as dependent.
Bodenhausen and Worth hypothesized that people with gender-atypical symptoms might be seen more positively, in part because their mental illness would look more "genuine" and less like a defect of character.
To investigate, they presented 186 people with one of four different case scenarios: a depressed man, an alcoholic man, a depressed woman, or an alcoholic woman. Study participants, who completed the survey online, were then asked about how they reacted to that person emotionally, how likely they would be to help that person, and whether they thought that person had real mental health problems.
People had more negative views about the "gender typical" cases, the researchers found, and felt less inclined to help them, whereas the study participants were more likely to see the "gender atypical" case studies as representing real mental disturbances with biological roots.
The results offer insight into the stigmatization of mental illness, Bodenhausen noted, which is a serious problem because it leads to discrimination against mentally ill people and also discourages them from seeking help.
The researcher is now looking at the influence of gender on how mentally ill people feel about themselves, or "self-stigma," which often takes place at the subconscious level. "People who feel like they're blaming themselves and that their problem stems from their own inadequacies may be pessimistic about their prospects for changing the situation," he said.
The current findings suggest that it's worthwhile for people to take a look at their own feelings about mentally ill people, especially if we find ourselves feeling angry or critical toward a person whose symptoms "match" their gender, Bodenhausen added.