Communicating about mental illness and violence: Balancing stigma and increased support for services

Emma E. McGinty, Howard H. Goldman, Bernice A. Pescosolido, Colleen L. Barry

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


In the ongoing national policy debate about how to best address serious mental illness (SMI), a major controversy among mental health advocates is whether drawing public attention to an apparent link betweenSMI and violence, shown to elevate stigma, is the optimal strategy for increasing public support for investing inmental health services or whether nonstigmatizing messages can be equally effective.We conducted a randomized experiment to examine this question. Participants in a nationally representative online panel (N= 1,326) were randomized to a control arm or to read one of three brief narratives about SMI emphasizing violence, systemic barriers to treatment, or successful treatment and recovery. Narratives, or stories about individuals, are a common communication strategy used by policy makers, advocates, and the news media. Study results showed that narratives emphasizing violence or barriers to treatment were equally effective in increasing the public's willingness to pay additional taxes to improve the mental health system (55 percent and 52 percent, vs. 42 percent in the control arm). Only the narrative emphasizing the link between SMI and violence increased stigma. For mental health advocates dedicated to improving the public mental health system, these findings offer an alternative to stigmatizingmessages linking mental illness and violence.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)185-228
Number of pages44
JournalJournal of health politics, policy and law
Issue number2
StatePublished - Apr 1 2018


  • Advocacy
  • Communication
  • Mental illness
  • Policy
  • Stigma
  • Violence

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Health Policy


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