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Public beliefs about causes and risk factors for mental disorders

Changes in Australia over 8 years



Surveys of the public in several countries have found a predominant belief in social environmental causes of mental disorders. The present study was conducted to determine whether this has changed over time in Australia.


Beliefs about causes and risk factors were assessed using questions based around case vignettes of a person with depression or schizophrenia. These questions were asked in a national survey of 2,031 Australians aged 18–74 carried out in 1995, and a second survey of 1,823 persons carried out in 2003–2004.


The major changes were an increase in belief in genetic causes of both depression and schizophrenia, increases in beliefs about problems from childhood and the death of someone close as causes of depression, and a decrease in the belief that “weakness of character” is a cause of schizophrenia.


There has been an increase in belief about genetic causes, which may be due to publicity about the human genome project and related scientific advances. This change has not been at the expense of belief in social causes, and it has been accompanied by a decrease in the belief that personal weakness is a cause.

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The 1995 survey was carried out with funding from a National Health and Medical Research Council Unit Grant. The 2003–2004 survey was carried out as part of the Australia–Japan Partnership, a cross-national study of mental health literacy in both countries. This survey was funded by the Australian Department of Health and Aging, a National Health and Medical Research Council Program Grant, and “beyondblue: the national depression initiative”. We wish to thank our colleagues who were involved in the 1995 survey and Kelly Blewitt for research assistance with the 2003–2004 survey.

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Correspondence to Anthony F. Jorm.

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Jorm, A.F., Christensen, H. & Griffiths, K.M. Public beliefs about causes and risk factors for mental disorders. Soc Psychiat Epidemiol 40, 764–767 (2005). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00127-005-0940-z

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Key words

  • mental health literacy
  • causes
  • risk factors
  • depression
  • schizophrenia
  • attitude