Academic Psychiatry

, Volume 41, Issue 3, pp 320–325 | Cite as

Attitudes of Students at a US Medical School Toward Mental Illness and Its Causes

  • Catherine Chiles
  • Elina Stefanovics
  • Robert Rosenheck
Empirical Report



Stigma among health care providers toward people with mental illness is a worldwide problem. This study at a large US university examined medical student attitudes toward mental illness and its causes, and whether student attitudes change as they progress in their education.


An electronic questionnaire focusing on attitudes toward people with mental illness, causes of mental illness, and treatment efficacy was used to survey medical students at all levels of training. Exploratory factor analysis was used to establish attitudinal factors, and analysis of variance was used to identify differences in student attitudes among these factors. Independent-samples t tests were used to assess attitudes toward efficacy of treatments for six common psychiatric and medical conditions.


The study response rate was 42.6 % (n = 289). Exploratory factor analysis identified three factors reflecting social acceptance of mental illness, belief in supernatural causes, and belief in biopsychosocial causes. Stages of student education did not differ across these factors. Students who had completed the psychiatry clerkship were more likely to believe that anxiety disorders and diabetes could be treated effectively. Students reporting personal experiences with mental illness showed significantly more social acceptance, and people born outside the USA were more likely to endorse supernatural causes of mental illness.


Sociocultural influences and personal experience with mental illness have a greater effect than medical education on attitudes toward people with mental illness. Psychiatric education appears to have a small but significant effect on student attitudes regarding treatment efficacy.


Medical student Attitudes Mental illness Stigma 


Compliance with Ethical Standards


The authors have no conflicts of interest to report.


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Copyright information

© Academic Psychiatry 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Catherine Chiles
    • 1
  • Elina Stefanovics
    • 1
  • Robert Rosenheck
    • 1
  1. 1.Yale University School of MedicineNew HavenUSA

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