A study of psychiatrists' concepts of mental illness

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Abstract

Background

There are multiple models of mental illness that inform professional and lay understanding. Few studies have formally investigated psychiatrists' attitudes. We aimed to measure how a group of trainee psychiatrists understand familiar mental illnesses in terms of propositions drawn from different models.

Method

We used a questionnaire study of a sample of trainees from South London and Maudsley National Health Service (NHS) Foundation Trust designed to assess attitudes across eight models of mental illness (e.g. biological, psychodynamic) and four psychiatric disorders. Methods for analysing repeated measures and a principal components analysis (PCA) were used.

Results

No one model was endorsed by all respondents. Model endorsement varied with disorder. Attitudes to schizophrenia were expressed with the greatest conviction across models. Overall, the ‘biological’ model was the most strongly endorsed. The first three components of the PCA (interpreted as dimensions around which psychiatrists, as a group, understand mental illness) accounted for 56% of the variance. Each main component was classified in terms of its distinctive combination of statements from different models: PC1 33% biological versus non-biological; PC2 12% ‘eclectic’ (combining biological, behavioural, cognitive and spiritual models); and PC3 10% psychodynamic versus sociological.

Conclusions

Trainee psychiatrists are most committed to the biological model for schizophrenia, but in general are not exclusively committed to any one model. As a group, they organize their attitudes towards mental illness in terms of a biological/non-biological contrast, an ‘eclectic’ view and a psychodynamic/sociological contrast. Better understanding of how professional group membership influences attitudes may facilitate better multidisciplinary working.

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