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Crazy, sad or just different: evolving representations of mental illness and the mentally ill during psychology education

Correia, Helen MaryORCID: 0000-0003-2717-2294 (2003) Crazy, sad or just different: evolving representations of mental illness and the mentally ill during psychology education. PhD thesis, Murdoch University.

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Mental illness is an issue of concern to the general community, and is a major focus of professions such as psychology. Such professions demand extensive education and training, with the aim to develop a scientific understanding of mental illness that is portrayed in contrast to socially shared knowledge, or social representations. However, some aspects of these social representations may persist in conjunction with the development of scientific knowledge. The current study used a multimethodological approach to elucidate how such social representations may be transformed or modified by relevant education in psychology.

Psychology students, non-psychology students and clinical psychologists participated in the current study to assess groups at different levels of psychology education and training. Four forms of data collection were used as part of a multimethodological approach. Intra-individual methods focused on the use of repertory grids and word associations to explore responses to the mentally ill as well as other relevant individuals such as the physically ill and mental health professionals. Inter-individual methods focused on social interaction in response to a case vignette of an individual with a mental disorder and group discussion within the educational setting.

Several core themes described in previous research were identified consistently across different groups and different methodologies. Negative emotion, such as distress and sadness, impaired functioning, and the need for assistance were commonly used as indicators of mental health problems. One of the most prominent themes, however, was the notion of difference and distance. The mentally ill person was consistently differentiated, particularly from the self, even when the label of mentally ill was not imposed. The importance of the self was especially evident, acting as a means to define normality and difference.

Several differences were also noticeable between different levels of education. A changing representation was evident from understandings of the mentally ill as crazy, viewed in a more stereotypical, negative and critical light, to representations of the mentally ill as sad, typified by greater sympathy. Social representations may therefore influence the social response to the mentally ill. Increasing education associated with scientific understandings was also characterised by exclusive technical discourse, a feature that may distance the psychologist from the general community.

These findings are particularly relevant to how education affects social representations of mental illness and the mentally ill, as public campaigns seek to change community attitudes and understandings. In addition, there are particular implications for psychologists, in training or at work. While a primary goal for the psychologist is to empathise and connect with the individuals they are intending to assist, the emphasis on difference, in both social and scientific understandings of the mentally ill, may act as a barrier. The education and professional development of psychologists should incorporate an understanding of how such representations may influence professional practice.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Murdoch Affiliation(s): School of Psychology
Supervisor(s): Broderick, Pia
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