Samantha Joerg Research

I’m Not My Disorder: The Effects of Mental Illness on Friendships in Individuals Age 18-22

Samantha Joerg, Kristin Henkel, Ph.D, and Mary E. Duffy, BA.

Introduction:

The stigma associated with mental illness is a growing issue highlighted largely by public service announcements such as the StigmaFree Pledge from the National Association for Mental Illness, which urges people to look past the mental illness to “see a person for who they are and take action on mental health issues” and the “Hope Starts with You” campaign (NAMI, 2015). Recent research has focused primarily on the effects of self-stigma on relationships, instead of the impact stigma has on relationships when one individual in the relationship does not have a mental illness (Rodebaugh, Liam, Fernandez, Langer, Weisman, Tonge, et. al., 2014) The purpose of this study was to explore the participants’ reactions to finding out that a friend has a mental illness. It was hypothesized that participants would have more negative reactions to finding out about their friend because of what is known about the stigma.

Method:

This study was collected online using psychsurveys.org. The sample was comprised of 84 individuals between the ages of 18 and 22, 74 females and 9 males. Eighty-eighty point one percent of participants reported knowing someone with a mental illness. Of these, 38.1% reported that person being a friend and 23.8% a family member. All participants read a vignette in which they learned that a close friend had been diagnosed with a mental illness. Half read that their friend had been diagnosed with anorexia (n=45) and half read that their friend had been diagnosed with depression (n=39).

After reading the vignette, participants were asked to rate the likelihood that they would respond in specific ways. They were asked how likely they would be to be supportive, unsure how to react, confused, uncomfortable, touched, skeptical, feel no different towards their friend, question the merit of the confession, it would not impact their friendship, anger, distance themselves from the person, anxious, curious, or burdened by this new information.

Results:

Several independent sample t-tests were conducted using SPSS.

The first test explored the impact of gender on the different variables specifically regarding the statements “I would feel uncomfortable” and “I wouldn’t see them differently”. Males were significantly more likely to feel uncomfortable than females (male (M=4.22, SD=1.394) and female (M=2.66, SD=1.264); t(81)=3.460, p = .001).  Women were more likely to report that they would not see their friend differently (male (M=3.44, SD=1.667) and female (M=4.66, SD=1.464); t(81)=-2.322, p = .023).

The second test was a comparison between the anorexia and depression conditions for each of the fourteen possible responses, specifically regarding the statement “I would be angry”. In terms of the participant being angry, the difference in the scores was significant as those in the anorexia condition were more likely to feel angry towards their friends than those in the depression condition (anorexia (M=1.71, SD=.869) and depression (M=1.36, SD=.668); t(82)=-2.057, p = .043).

The third test was a comparison between the whether or not the participant knew someone with a mental illness for each of the fourteen possible responses, specifically regarding the statements “I wouldn’t know how to react” and “I would be angry”. In terms of not knowing how to react, there was a significant difference in the scores for the people who did know someone with a mental illness in comparison with someone who did not (yes (M=3.04, SD=1.379) and no (M=5.00, SD=.816); t(16.969)=-6.447, p = .000). In terms of the participant being angry, the difference in the scores was significant as those who knew someone with a mental illness were less likely to feel angry towards their friends than those who did not (yes (M=1.59, SD=.826) and no (M=1.20, SD=.422); t(20.098)=2.401, p = .026).

Conclusions:

The results in this research study suggest several things regarding the impacts of mental illness on friendships and yielded some interesting results. In the three comparisons done, important information was collected in terms of gender, condition and whether or not someone knew someone with a mental illness.

Participants were more likely to be angry towards those with anorexia than those with depression. Males were more likely to feel uncomfortable than females and were significantly less likely to report that the mental illness would not cause them to see their friend differently. This could suggest that women are more empathetic towards those with mental disorders and arguably in keeping with typical gender norms. Those who did not know someone with a mental illness were less likely to report not knowing how to react to a friend confiding in them and were more likely to be angry with their friend. This much like the PSAs suggest, could demonstrate the inadequate knowledge and stigma regarding mental illness.

Further studies are needed in order to explore this relationship between mental illness and friendship from the perspective of the friend who does not have a disorder. The results of this study suggest the need for greater education and familiarity with mental illness to decrease stigma.

References:

National Alliance on Mental Health. (2015). Retrieved from http://www.nami.org/stigmafree

Rodebaugh, T. L., Lim, M, H., Fernandez, K. C., Langer, J. K., Weisman, J. S., Tonge, N., Levinson, C. A., Shumaker, E. A. (2014). Self and friend’s differing views of social anxiety disorder’s effects on friendships. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 123(4), 715-724. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/abn0000015

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