Mental illness stigma refers to negative stereotypes and prejudices about people with mental illness, and is a widespread phenomenon with damaging social, psychological, and economic consequences. Despite considerable policy attention, mental illness stigma does not appear to have declined significantly in recent years. Interpersonal contact with persons with mental illness has been identified as a promising approach to reducing mental illness stigma. This study investigates the effect of contact with mental health treatment users on stigma using an observational research design that is free of self-selection bias. The research design is based on the quasi-experiment in which university students are assigned to live together as roommates. Survey data were collected from first-year undergraduates at two large universities in the United States (N = 1605). Multivariable regressions were used to estimate the effect of assignment to a roommate with a history of mental health treatment on a brief measure of stigmatizing attitudes. Contact with a treatment user caused a modest increase in stigma (standardized effect size = 0.15, p = 0.03). This effect was present among students without a prior treatment history of their own, but not among those with a prior history. The findings indicate that naturalistic contact alone does not necessarily yield a reduction in mental illness stigma. This may help explain why stigma has not declined in societies such as the United States even as treatment use has risen substantially. The findings also highlight the importance of isolating the specific components, beyond contact per se, that are necessary to reduce stigma in contact-based interventions.
- Mental health
- Social contact