Will knowing the genetic roots of mental illness increase stigma? – Health

Will knowing the genetic roots of mental illness increase stigma? – Health – Brief Article

David Appell

The sequencing of the human genome allows researchers to identify genes that increase the risk of schizophrenia, major depression and other mental illnesses. But could people wrongly use this as evidence of the immutability of mental disorders?

In a forthcoming report in Psychiatric Rehabilitation Skills, Jo Phelan, Ph.D., an assistant professor of public health at Columbia University, gave subjects a neutral vignette concerning a patient with schizophrenia or major depression. As one might expect, subjects who believed the illness may be influenced by genetics were significantly less likely to think the person or his parents caused the problem. But they were also less likely to think that person would improve with appropriate help and more likely to think other family members could develop the same problem. The results will serve as the foundation for a nationwide phone survey this summer.

“In the mental health community, the feeling is so strong that biological explanations are good for stigma,” says Phelan. But by the same token, attention to genetics raises concerns that “people aren’t going to have as easy a time getting married, and others are more likely to think that the rest of the family will develop the problem or that there’s no hope for rehabilitation.” To be sure, genetics is not the sole factor–genes usually imply only increased risk, not definite disease. “And genetics can eventually help clarify the treatment needed, either by using pinpointed pharmaceuticals or gene-replacement therapies,” says Robert Klitzman, M.D., assistant professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University.

Some argue that concern about genetic stereotyping is misguided. E. Fuller Torrey, M.D., president of the Treatment Advocacy Center; a nonprofit mental illness advocacy group, points out that the greatest misconception about the mentally ill is that they are violent. “This study looks at only a small part of the stigma issue,” he says.

Phelan maintains that stigma has increased in the last 50 years because the mentally ill are more visible after decades of deinstitutionalization. It’s far from clear how the genetic revolution will affect these negative perceptions.

COPYRIGHT 2002 Sussex Publishers, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group