National mental health report 2013

Indicator 3: Rates of stigmatising attitudes within the community

Page last updated: 2013

Key messages:

  • Social distance is a term used to indicate the willingness of people to interact with people experiencing mental illness. In 2011, on average, Australians rated themselves as relatively more 'willing' than 'unwilling' to interact socially with people with a mental illness. Stigmatising attitudes varied across the different types of mental illness, with the average desire for social distance being highest for chronic schizophrenia, followed by early schizophrenia, depression and depression with suicidal thoughts.
  • Comparing the 2011 results with equivalent data from 2003-04, Australians' desire for social distance from people with depression with suicidal thoughts had decreased. However, their desire for social distance from people with depression without suicidal thoughts, early schizophrenia and chronic schizophrenia remained relatively unchanged.
  • There is evidence that the efforts of organisations like beyondblue may have contributed to this improvement, at least in the case of depression.
Stigma is often nominated as the issue of most concern by people who live with a mental illness. Stigmatising attitudes have the potential to inhibit help seeking, increase the experience of psychological distress and adversely impact upon the recovery process and achievement of educational and vocational goals.43, 44

Data for this indicator are taken from the National Surveys of Mental Health Literacy and Stigma, conducted in 1995, 2003-04 and 2011.45 These surveys assessed rates of stigmatising attitudes in Australia using measures of social distance, which are indicators of the willingness of Australians to interact with people suffering from a range of mental illnesses, in a variety of situations. Figure 48 provides data on social distance from the 2003-04 and 2011 surveys.

Data from the 2011 survey suggest that, on average, Australians rated themselves as relatively more 'willing' than 'unwilling' to socially interact with people with a mental illness. In 2011, the average desire for social distance was highest for chronic schizophrenia, followed by early schizophrenia, depression and depression with suicidal thoughts.45,46

Comparing these results with those from the 2003-04 survey, there is evidence that the Australian public has become more willing to interact with people showing symptoms of depression (with suicidal thoughts). People's willingness to interact with people with depression (without suicidal thoughts) and early schizophrenia also showed improvement in the right direction, but this did not reach statistical significance. Their willingness to interact with people with chronic schizophrenia remained the same across the two years.45,46

There may be a range of reasons for the improvements observed above. Over the last decade Australia has invested considerable resources in reducing stigmatising attitudes in the community. For example, beyondblue: the national depression initiative has been funded by the Australian Government and state and territory governments since 2000 with the goal of improving the Australian community's awareness of and response to depression and related disorders. Similarly, initiatives such as the federally funded MindMatters and Kidsmatter (described in more detail under Indicator 6) have promoted mental health literacy in schools. States and territories have also invested in their own anti-stigma campaigns. Top of page

Figure 48: Average desire for social distance from the person described in the vignette, 2003-04 and 2011

Refer to the following table for a text equivalent of Figure 48: Average desire for social distance from the person described in the vignette, 2003-04 and 2011

Text version of figure 48

Mean social distance scores in the following table equate to the following willingness of people to interact with people a mental illness:
  • Mean social distance score 0 - definitely willing
  • Mean social distance score 5 - probably willing
  • Mean social distance score 10 - probably unwilling
  • Mean social distance score 15 - definitely unwilling
    2003-042011
    Depression
    9.4
    9.1
    Depression with suicidal thoughts
    9.5
    9.0
    Early schizophrenia
    10.0
    9.8
    Chronic schizophrenia
    11.0
    11.1