The Stigmatising Implications of Presenting Schizophrenia as a Genetic Disease

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This study aimed to investigate the hypothesis that belief in a genetic aetiology of schizophrenia will increase the stigma associated with the disorder. Levels of five potentially stigmatising attitudes were compared in two groups of participants who had read a vignette describing an individual who has schizophrenia. In one group the disorder was explained as being caused by ‘genetic’ factors, and in the other by ‘environmental’ factors. This study found that three of the five potentially stigmatising attitudes measured were increased when participants read a vignette with a genetic causation rather than an environmental causation. Firstly, genetic attributions increased levels of associative stigma towards close relatives (p<0.001). Secondly, participants viewed recovery as less likely when genetic factors were implicated as causative (p<0.001). Finally, there was also an increased perception of the character's “dangerousness” when the condition was explained by genetic factors (p<0.05). Contrary to previous research was the finding that perceived aetiology had no effect on participant's desire for social distance from an affected individual. Neither did perceived aetiology influence beliefs about moral accountability. The implications of these findings suggest that genetic counsellors and other health professionals, who are providing genetic information to those affected by schizophrenia should be aware of the possibility that a genetic explanation of schizophrenia could increase potentially stigmatising attitudes towards their clients and their clients' families. It is also possible that individuals with a diagnosis of schizophrenia may themselves form deterministic interpretations of the genetic information they receive and subsequently be less likely to adopt behavioural advice or adhere to treatment. Counsellors and health professionals should strive to present information in a balanced manner, ensuring recipients understand the multi-factorial causes of the disease.

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