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Determinants that shape public attitudes towards the mentally ill

A Dutch public study*

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The stigmatisation of the mentally ill is considered a well-established fact. To improve negative attitudes among the general public, we need to identify the factors that cause them. Drawing from previous studies, we combined a variety of variables to examine a comprehensive explanative model.


We examined a sample of the Dutch public on their willingness to interact with mental patients. We examined a number of determinants concerning their influence on levels of social distance: demographical characteristics of the public, their beliefs about stereotypes of mental patients, their beliefs about causes of mental problems, their familiarity with mental illness.


We employed a questionnaire survey among two sub-samples of the Dutch public (n = 812, response 33%).


Attributing psychiatric problems to structural causes (i.e. causes beyond patients’ control and responsibility, such as genetic transmission) is associated with less social distance. Conversely, attribution to individual factors (e.g. drug abuse) related to more distant attitudes. Stereotypical beliefs about mental patients (e.g. untrustworthiness, aggressiveness, causing disturbances) relate to more social distance from mental patients.


Results implied that our comprehensive model explains only a modest amount of variance, but shows that to improve public mental health literacy and attitudes should first deal with the most negative stereotypical beliefs.

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Correspondence to Job T.B. van ‘t Veer.

Additional information

*This research was supported by the Dutch National Funding Organization for Mental Health (Nationaal Fonds voor de Geestelijke Volksgezondheid). We thank Diane Ricketts and the anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments. We also thank Eric Noorthoorn for his contribution to the implementation of this study.

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van ‘t Veer, J.T., Kraan, H.F., Drosseart, S.H. et al. Determinants that shape public attitudes towards the mentally ill. Soc Psychiat Epidemiol 41, 310–317 (2006). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00127-005-0015-1

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  • public study
  • mental illness
  • attitudes
  • social distance
  • stereotypes