Gender stereotypes and mental illness

// 6 March 2009

Researchers in the US have found people discriminate more against people with mental illnesses, if that illness matches gender stereotypes.

According to the press release on EurekAlert, researchers presented groups of volunteers with case histories of ‘Brian’ and ‘Karen’ and asked for their reactions.

Some read about Brian, who was a stereotypical alcoholic, while others read about Karen, who showed all the classical symptoms of major depression. Still others read switched-around versions of these cases, so that Karen was the one abusing alcohol and Brian was depressed. The idea was to see if the typicality of Brian and Karen’s symptoms (or lack of it) shaped the volunteers’ reactions and judgments.

And it did, without question. As reported in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, the volunteers expressed more anger and disgust – and less sympathy – toward Brian the alcoholic than toward Karen the alcoholic, and vice versa for depression. They were also more willing to help Brian and Karen when they suffered from an atypical disorder. Most striking of all, the volunteers were much more likely to view Brian’s depression (and Karen’s alcoholism) as genuine biological disorders – rather than character defects or matters of personal irresponsibility. What this suggests is that stigma-busting campaigns need to closely consider the potentially powerful role of intersecting stereotypes in shaping when and how mental illness stigma is expressed.

Via Jezebel.

(NB: Readers might also be interested in the feminist mental health blog Crazy Like Us?)

Comments From You

Kez // Posted 6 March 2009 at 6:11 pm

That’s very interesting, and in one respect perhaps the opposite of what one might expect – for instance, that there would be more condemnation towards people who step outside their gender roles (e.g. Karen the alcoholic). This does not appear to be the case, according to this research.

The Boggart // Posted 6 March 2009 at 7:35 pm

I’m not really familiar with these mental health related stereotypes. If anything, I’d have assumed that alcoholism would be stereotyped along parallel gender and class lines. For example, the stereotype of the superficially respectable but bored suburban housewife alcoholic versus the stereotype of the hard-living, hard-boiled male pub-goer, enveloped in perpetual nicotine fug. Or maybe I just watch too much television? ;-)

I think that the findings are probably a result of those questioned seeing “Brian and Karen” as individuals, rather than simply switching their brains off when they encounter what they perceive to be a stereotype or “less real” person and reverting to uncaring, unthinking bigotry. Also, the human brain can be a funny thing at the best of times, so I can’t help but wonder if the fact that the stereotypes are negative ones had any bearing on the study. Perhaps these negative associations and emotions were subconsciously and subtly reflected in the participants’ responses.

Mary Tracy // Posted 6 March 2009 at 8:37 pm

Thanks for linking to us :)

You are right, Kez. This might be the only ocassion when not conforming to your gender works in your favour.

Damn. I knew I should have been an alcoholic.

polly styrene // Posted 7 March 2009 at 7:51 am

I find these results puzzling (the description of the study is so brief, it’s difficult to form an opinion on it as there is not really any description of th methodology). But it’s surely true that women who use alcohol at all are not generally viewed sympathetically. As a cursory reading of the Daily Mail and their endless stories about binge drinking will show. Despite the fact that women are less likely than men overall to suffer from diseases connected with alcohol misuse, the mainstream media focusses disproportionately on female alcohol abuse, and in particular ‘binge drinking laddettes’.

The results on depression sound slightly more convincing. Stereotypes of women as ‘neurotic’ ‘needy’ ‘passive’ mean that symptoms of depression in women are probably more likely to be seen simply as character flaws.

I also don’t think it’s true that women in the mental health system who don’t conform to gender stereotypes are likely to fare better. I remember writing an essay on this ages ago and a double bind system seems to operate whereas typically ‘feminine’ behaviour is seen as pathological but so is ‘unfeminine’ behaviour. It’s only women who conform to a very narrow set of gendered behaviours between these two extremes who are are viewed as mentally healthy.

Rhonwyyn // Posted 8 March 2009 at 10:44 pm

I’ll never forget learning that men can’t be “hysterical” because it’s a word based on the Greek for “uterus.” It’s a condition solely limited to women. (

It’s difficult to know how to balance the very real presence and impact of PMS on women’s behaviors with (I can’t think of the words). Like, everyone jokes about PMS now, such as, if a woman is having a bad day or is cranky, “Oh, it must be PMS.” It might be that the people with whom she’s interacting are just real jerks and she’s getting frustrated. Why does her reaction have to be blamed on the unique hormones with which she was created, as if those hormones are a weakness? Or rather, the effect of those hormones are a weakness? Aren’t women allowed to have normal feelings without the blame being placed on their hormones?

Victoria // Posted 8 March 2009 at 11:17 pm

This study is interesting, but very limited in its scope. For one thing, it’s impossible to claim that the results tell us anything about how gender stereotyping colours people’s perceptions of mental illnesses other than depression and alcoholism. What about schizophrenia? Bulimia? Psychotic depression? Personality disorders? A close look at gender stereotyping in relation to each of these conditions might reveal a completely different finding. Each mental illness has its own stereotypes attached.

I have suffered from eating disorders for years. According to conventional medical wisdom, about ten per cent of anorexia and bulimia sufferers are male, although eating disorder charities such as B-eat are challenging that figure and saying that the actual figure is much higher. They argue that anorexic and/or bulimic men are less likely to be diagnosed correctly even if they feel able to approach the doctor about their problems in the first place, because in the popular imagination eating disorders are so bound up with fashion models and celebrities and gossip magazines. A man couldn’t possibly suffer from such a condition…right? And if he does, he must be gay!

As a woman with a history of anorexia, I have been treated as vain and celebrity-obsessed by curious acquaintances. Of the many doctors whom I have seen, a few of them assumed at the outset that I must have a very controlling personality. (In actual fact, the opposite is true, which is why assertiveness work formed such a big part of my therapy.) Had I been a man with the same medical history, the assumption of both groups would no doubt have been that I was uncomfortable with my sexuality. I can’t tell whether male or female sufferers attract more sympathy.

ConservaTorygirl // Posted 9 March 2009 at 12:05 am

This is not so much a comment on the above but related…

I hate it PASSIONATELY when (usually men) describe women as “psychotic” when they mean “justifably angry”.

It’s not acceptable.

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