Mental illness stigma can show up anywhere, and college is no exception. The good news is that because psychology researchers are generally university professors, college students are one of the most studied populations – so we know a thing or two about what drives mental illness stigma in college environments and how it can be countered.

Here’s some of what we’ve learned

  • Stigma prevents disclosure: There are a variety of factors that influence how likely college students are to “come out” by disclosing mental health diagnoses, but public stigma is a big one: more stigma means people are more likely to keep their diagnoses secret.
  • Younger students distance themselves from people with mental illness more: As college students mature, their stigmatizing attitudes tend to diminish on average. Younger college students are more likely to want to distance themselves socially from people with mental illnesses.
  • Students who know people with mental illness stigmatize mental illness less: Knowing someone who’s affected by mental illness may be one of the biggest stigma destroyers there is. College students who know someone with a mental illness have less desire to distance themselves from people with mental illness socially.
  • Contact-based interventions decrease stigma…: If knowing people with mental illness makes people less likely to stigmatize mental illness, it makes sense that introducing people to others with mental illness could counter stigma. In fact, contact-based anti-stigma presentations, which give participants a chance to interact with people openly diagnosed with mental illnesses, reduce stigma among college students.
  • And so do education-based interventions: That said, contact-based interventions aren’t the only effective way of fighting mental illness stigma. Education-based interventions, which aim to give people more information about mental illnesses, seem to help about as much as contact-based interventions.

Mental illness stigma is a real problem on college campuses. Fortunately, there are interventions that work. Presentations that let students learn about mental illnesses or meet people with mental illnesses have a real impact on reducing stigma and creating an environment where people can be more open about mental illness.

Image: Flickr/Steven Depolo under CC BY 2.0