By Rick Nauert PhD
April 24, 2015

While most of the nation views California as an open-minded state, residents with mental health issues perceive a significantly different environment.

This belief was uncovered in a new RAND Corporation study that found a large proportion of individuals with mental illness reporting discrimination in both private and public settings.

Investigators found that just 41 percent of those surveyed believe that people are caring and sympathetic to those with mental illnesses. Moreover, 81 percent of those surveyed believed that people with mental illness experience high levels of prejudice and discrimination.

Consistent with their perceptions of public stigma, more than two-thirds of those polled said they definitely or probably would hide a mental health problem from co-workers or classmates, and more than one-third said they would do so from family or friends as well.

“These high levels of perceived stigma may discourage individuals facing a mental health challenge from getting needed support from friends and family, the workplace, school and mental health professionals,” said Eunice Wong, lead author of the report and a behavioral scientist at RAND.

The results come from the California Well-Being Survey, which assessed the impact of mental health prevention and early intervention programs on individuals who are experiencing psychological distress.

The survey was conducted by RAND as part of efforts by the California Mental Health Services Administration (CalMHSA) to create prevention and early intervention programs designed to improve the mental health of California residents.

“This new report from RAND researchers highlights both the need to confront stigma, and the opportunity to promote mental health in our state with the statewide stigma reduction efforts offered by CalMHSA,” said Wayne Clark, executive director of CalMHSA.

Researchers surveyed 1,066 people who had previously reported mild to serious psychological distress when they took part in the California Health Interview Survey, a statewide survey about a broad array of health issues.

The California Well-Being Survey is the first population-based survey of individuals who are at risk for or are experiencing mental health problems, but may or may not have obtained treatment.

The group is a key target for prevention and early intervention efforts and largely has been unstudied.

Among survey participants who acknowledged experiencing a mental health problem, nearly nine in 10 reported discrimination based on it. Most often discrimination occurred in the sphere of intimate social relationships, although they also reported high levels of discrimination at school, in the workplace, and from health care providers and law enforcement officials.

Although perceived discrimination appears rampant, Californians who are experiencing psychological distress are showing signs of resiliency. More than 80 percent of those surveyed said they have a plan for how to stay or become well and believe they can meet their personal goals.

In addition, about 70 percent of those surveyed said that they are satisfied with life. The large majority of respondents believe that recovery from mental illness is possible and say they would seek treatment for a mental health problem if needed.

“While California residents facing mental health challenges are finding ways to cope and maintain important aspects of well-being, they are substantially burdened by self-stigma and discrimination, which may significantly undermine recovery,” Wong said.

“Our overall findings show a clear need for stigma and discrimination reduction efforts in California.”

California Residents Report Mental Health Stigma [Psych Central]