Examining Our Biases About Mental Illness

“There’s nothing really wrong with him, it’s just anxiety.” How many times have you heard someone say this—or said it yourself? Mental health problems are among the most marginalized health conditions in the United States. They’re viewed as less “real” than physical illnesses; there’s no tumor to be palpated, no abnormality to be spotted on an X-ray. Emotional and psychological problems are often thought to be under a person’s control in a way that, say, multiple sclerosis or cancer is not. And because mental health problems can be construed as signs of weakness, sufferers may hide their symptoms. People who suffer from a mental illness need to feel comfortable seeking care and to trust that they’ll be treated with skill, compassion, and respect. This is vital: studies consistently find that mental illnesses, particularly depression, take a terrible toll on health. Such illnesses have been associated with an increased risk of stroke, coronary artery disease, and dementia, as well as increased mortality in people with cancer, diabetes, or chronic kidney disease and following a myocardial infarction or coronary artery bypass surgery.

That’s from “Examining our Biases About Mental Illness,” the Editorial in the February issue of AJN by clinical managing editor Karen Roush, MS, RN, FNP-C. What biases and assumptions about the mentally ill, the depressed, the anxious have you seen in your practice? Do you ever find yourself slipping into such biases yourself as a kind of default setting?

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2016-11-21T13:10:37+00:00 February 24th, 2012|nursing perspective|4 Comments
Senior editor/social media strategy, American Journal of Nursing, and editor of AJN Off the Charts.


  1. readandwriteglobalhealth February 25, 2012 at 1:10 am

    Sounds interesting – is it possible to link it to a Google Scholars citation list? Key issue it to make it easier to develop these matrices and to understand their strengths and limitations alongside other bibliometric data. Impact, use, downloads, views – all important but not captured by many of the other measures – so this is helpful but needs to be made easy to use.

  2. Paul Southworth February 24, 2012 at 2:11 pm

    That’s exactly what I’m getting at Jim. Like many physical diseases, mental illness can cause suffering and ability to function in everyday life. I think this is just as important as many of the physical strains it brings.

  3. jm February 24, 2012 at 1:15 pm

    Thanks for your comment, Paul. You raise an interesting point, if I understand what you’re saying correctly: that mental illness is itself a painful affliction, aside from any physical effects it may also cause through adverse effects of medication, self-destructive behavior, stress and its toll on the body, etc.

  4. Paul Southworth February 24, 2012 at 1:00 pm

    Thanks for a great article! This topic that clearly needs reiterating as much as possible. A number of people close to me who suffer with mental illness encounter precisely these preconceptions time and time again. Unfortunately this even extends to those working in healthcare professions where colleagues really should know better.

    I do have one small quibble with the piece though. You mention that “studies consistently find that mental illnesses, particularly depression, take a terrible toll on health” and go on to list the physical illnesses caused or exacerbated by mental illness. While this is of course true, I think it is equally important to emphasise mental illness as a health toll itself rather than focussing on the physical effects.

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