2006 issue 4


Volume 15, issue 4

Original article

Public opinion poll: social perception of mental illness and the mentally ill in the year 2005

BOGNA WCIÓRKA1, Jacek Wciórka2
1. Centrum Badania Opinii Społecznej w Warszawie
2. I Klinika Psychiatryczna Instytutu Psychiatrii i Neurologii w Warszawie
Postępy Psychiatrii i Neurologii 2006; 15 (4): 255-267
Keywords: mentally ill people, mental illness, opinion poll, Polish society


Objectives. The aim of a number of initiatives undertaken in recent years in Europe and worldwide has been to improve the public image and status of people suffering from mental illness. These inititives included programs of psychiatric care modernization, mental health promotion, empowerment, and patient's rights advocacy, as well as prevention of stigmatization, exclusion and discrimination of people with an experience of such illness. The aim of this study was to find out Polish society's current views of the subject.

Methods. The opinion poll was conducted on a representative random sample of adult residents of Poland (N = 1037) by the Opinon Poll Centre network in June 2005, as a monthly poll on "Current problems and events".

Results. A majority of respondents (60%) note mostly pejorative terms used in their environment to denote the mentally ill, while only a third (34%) - neutral, descriptive terms. Somewhat over a half (58%) of the respondents believe that mentally ill people can recover, while 31% expressed the opposite view. Incomprehensible behaviours are more often considered to be typical symptoms of mental illness than aggressive or belligerent ones (41-45% as compared to 22-25%). Healthy people respond to a direct contact with a mentally ill person most often with compassion (57%), embarrassment (52%), feelings of helplessness (38%), fear (37%), or pity (34%). However, a vast majority of Poles (76%) believe that mental disorders should be kept secret, since they are shameful. Social distance towards the mentally ill was measured in terms of the respondent's objections to their undertaking various social roles. The objections were the stronger the higher were the role demands (i.e. the greater responsibility and confidence were required for a given role, the stronger was our respondents' belief that it should not be entrusted to people who have suffered from mental illness). An opinion predominates that the mentally ill are treated worse than other citizens, above all, as regards the right to employment (83%), respect for personal dignity (67%), property rights (61%), and to a smaller degree - receiving a fair trial (42%). Differences of opinion were more marked regarding inequality in access to social assistance (42%) and health care (34%).

Conclusions. A rather pessimistic and reluctant stereotype of mental illness, with clearly stigmatising and excluding underpinnings, seems to prevail in the public opinion. Incomprehensible and maladaptive behaviours rather than belligerent ones are more often considered to be typical of mental illness, while a sense of helplessness rather than active reluctance is regarded as a typical reaction to the mentally ill. The level ofsocial distance towards the mentally ill suggests a distrust of their ability to assume social responsibilities. The belief in inequality and discriminatory treatment of mentally ill people in many important areas of life is shared by a large proportion of the respondents.