About one in five Americans suffers from mental illness every year, and May, being Mental Health Awareness Month, shines a light on this reality. Based on this statistic, we all know someone who experiences mental health issues, yet new research in Evolutionary Psychological Science shows just how stigmatized mental illness continues to be.
For a recent study, researchers recruited 466 participants across North America from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk website, a crowdsourced marketplace for human tasks. Study participants were asked to rate a hypothetical person with mental illness, which included schizophrenia or depression, versus “people on average” across a range of traits desirable in a significant other, such as their social status and how sexually desirable they were.
In a second study, 363 participants read hypothetical dating profiles in which the person disclosed having either a mental illness (in this case, bipolar disorder) or a physical illness (chronic asthma). Participants rated how willing they were to date the person in question across three scenarios: a short-term date, like dinner and drinks, a short-term fling or a long-term relationship.
People with mental illness were rated as less attractive in the realms of social status.
People with mental illness were rated as less attractive in the realms of social status, personality and sexual desirability. Across the board, study respondents were less willing to date someone if they had a psychiatric illness, and what was most surprising is that this extended not just to long-term relationships, but short-term dates and hook-ups, as well. On average, men were more likely to rate short-term partners with mental illness more positively than women, but no differences emerged between the sexes when it came to rating long-term partners.
People with mental illness were also viewed more negatively as potential mates than those with a physical illness; basically, people in the study would have preferred to date someone with chronic asthma to someone with bipolar disorder. This speaks to how mental illness continues to be more stigmatized in our society than other medical conditions.
Research has previously shown the real-world effects of this. People with mental illness often cite stigma as one of the reasons dating is difficult. As well, attitudes toward mental illness have been shown to vary depending on the particular disorder, with some disorders, like drug and alcohol addiction, schizophrenia and depression, being more heavily stigmatized than others.
On a slightly more positive note, the researchers pointed out that the choices we make about whom we date in real life are much more complex than simply reading a description online and making a decision about the person. When you think about it, even when you use a hook-up app, you usually exchange a few words (or emojis) before meeting up. So, in the context of dating, when someone you know and care about discloses having a mental illness, it may be less likely to be a romantic deal-breaker.
Going back to the big picture of how we might increase awareness about mental health issues, stigma often takes the form of unwarranted stereotypes, such as the belief that mental illness makes a person unpredictable and violent. This, in turn, makes people want to distance themselves from those who are struggling.
For someone dealing with mental illness, this is one of the worst things we can do. Social support can be incredibly beneficial, and even if you don’t know what the right thing to say is, just listening is sometimes enough. Speaking openly and candidly about this topic also helps to challenge assumptions and prejudice.
The most important thing to know is that living with mental illness doesn’t mean you are weak or unlovable, and there is no shame in asking for help, whether it’s from the people in your life or a mental health professional.
Debra W. Soh is a sex writer and sexual neuroscientist at York University in Toronto. She has written for Harper’s, Scientific American, The Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times, The Globe and Mail and many others. Follow her on Twitter: @debra_soh.