Attitudes of Christian College Students: How Do They View Mentally Ill

Attitudes of Christian College Students: How Do They View Mentally Ill

Attitudes of Christian College Students:
How Do They View the Mentally Ill?

Jennifer M. O’nan

Abstract

Previous research suggests that education may be helpful in improving attitudes towards the mentally ill.  I hypothesized that Christian college students who read an article putting mental illness in a positive light would have a more positive attitude regarding the mentally ill.  My participants consisted of ninety-six undergraduate students from psychology and theology classes.  A single experimental design method was chosen to conduct the research.  The experimental group read Exposing the Myth that Christians Should Not Have Emotional Problems (Carlson, 1998), and the control group read an essay I had composed about Alice in Wonderland, after which each group completed a questionnaire.  I did find a significant difference in that those that read Exposing the Myth that Christians Should Not Have Emotional Problems (Carlson, 1998) had a more positive attitude then the participants who read the Alice essay.  One would hope that education about mental illness can improve our knowledge of this health concern which effects millions of individuals.

Attitudes of Christian College Students:
How Do They View the Mentally Ill?

There seem to be many myths and misinformation regarding those with mental illness.  Prejudice, intolerance, and discrimination are often experienced by mentally ill persons within the general public and on college campuses as well (Granello & Granello, 2000).  “People who have been treated for mental illness state that the biggest problem they face is the inability to be accepted by others” (American Baptist Association, 1992).  

            Recently, Granello & Granello (2000) researched the association between college students’ attitudes towards the mentally ill and any previous knowledge regarding mental illness the student may have had.  Specifically, they were looking to see if demographic variables such as race, sex, and age made a difference in their attitudes.  They came to the conclusion that none of these variables had any direct correlation to attitudes.  They did find, however, that the amount of knowledge a student had affected their attitudes towards the mentally ill.  Such research suggests that education can and does make a difference in attitudes toward the mentally ill (Granello & Granello, 2000). 

            Tentatively, it appears that the more knowledge about mental illness a person has, the more likely he or she will be empathetic and tolerant towards those afflicted (Hahn, 2002).  Yasuda, Tsuda, & Shimodera (2001) performed an experiment in which they put the experimental group through a one hour mental health education program, then gave them a survey to see if their attitudes were more tolerant than the control group, who had not been through the education program.  The results were significant and found that those who had been through the educational program had a much higher tolerance level than those who had not gone through the educational program. 

            Through the two previous studies, one would begin to assume those who have more education or knowledge about mental illness are more tolerant towards the mentally ill.  Certainly, the entire body of research on learning theory would lend limited support to such an association (Mazur, 2002).

            Within the Christian community, intolerance seems to be high because of the misconceptions still floating around about mental illness, including the view that mental illness is the result of sin or Satanic forces (Carlson, 1998).  Gray (2001) explored the attitudes of Christians towards the mentally ill and found that Christians had a more tolerant attitude towards mentally ill persons, than that of the general public.  However, he noted in his study (2001) that the congregation that was used was from a small town with a high frequency of mental illness.  Therefore, they may have been more tolerant simply because of their previous knowledge of mental illness. 

            In pulling from this limited review of the literature, I suggest that Christian college students may have an intolerant view of the mentally ill because of ignorance and myths presented by Christian views in general.  However, I think that if they are educated or are presented a positive view of mental illness, then their attitude may be influenced, and they may become more tolerant.  In this study, I will explore whether a group of Christian college students, from one Christian college, that read an article presenting mental illness in a positive light from a Christian perspective will have a more tolerant view towards the mentally ill compared to a group of Christian college students who do not read the article.

Method

Participants

            Ninety-six Christian undergraduate students (49 male, 47 female) from a mid-South University participated in my study.  Students volunteered to participate from general education theology and psychology classes.  These classes are general education requirements which kept my sample from being unbiased towards major.

            My sample consisted largely of Caucasian students between the ages of 18 and 22.  About five percent of those participating in the study identified themselves as African-American.  Another three percent of my sample consisted of foreign exchange students primarily from Brazil, Argentina, and various southeast Asian countries.  About five percent of those who participated were non-traditional college students in the age-range of 30 to 50.

Materials

            I used two articles and one questionnaire in this research.  The experimental group was given an excerpt from an article called Exposing the Myth that Christians Should Not Have Emotional Problems (Carlson, 1998).  The control group was given an excerpt of an essay I had written a couple of years ago entitled “Perceptions Define Concepts in Alice books.”  I wanted the control group to have something to read, so that the participants in both groups would not suspect any differences between themselves and other participants.  Also, the paper said nothing about mental illness or Christianity, so as not to confound the results in any way.  Both groups were given a questionnaire (See Appendix) to complete regarding attitudes towards the mentally ill.  I used a modified version of a questionnaire that was used in a study researching the attitudes of churchgoers towards the mentally ill (Gray, 2001).  This survey was scored on a five point Likert scale (one representing the most negative attitude and five representing the most positive attitude).  The scoring is reversed on certain questions to avoid response bias. 

Procedure

            Research was conducted during a two-week span of time.  I went to several psychology and theology classes for the last ten minutes of class.  I handed out packets, which included an informed consent document, an article, and the survey.  The packets were distributed so that the participants were assigned randomly to the control and experimental groups.  I also wanted there to be a relatively equal number of males and females in each group.  To do this, I made four different packets. Packets 1 and 2 were the experimental packets, which included the article Exposing the Myth that Christians Should Not Have Emotional Problems (Carlson, 1998).  These were distributed to males and females respectively.  Packets 3 and 4 were the control packets, which included the essay I wrote, and were distributed to males and females respectively.  

            Upon receiving the packets, the students signed the consent form, and I instructed the participants to read the article and fill out the survey as honestly as possible and then give the packet to me. 

            I accepted all who volunteered to participate.  However, I only used the students who circled that they had a personal relationship with Jesus Christ on the questionnaire for my statistical analysis.  Therefore my sample in this study only consists of students who state they possess a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, since this is the specific population I am interested in. 

Results

The statistical analysis that I used in this study was the t-test.  I used a one-tailed test with the alpha level of .05 as my level of significance (Smith & Davis, 2001).  Christian college students who read the article Exposing the Myth that Christians Should Not Have Emotional Problems (Carlson, 1998)(M = 53.35, SD = 8.10) had a significantly better attitude towards the mentally ill, df(94) = 1.90, p = .05, then those who read the Alice essay (M = 50.10, SD = 8.61).

            This study was originally an assignment for a 2003 spring semester “Experimental Psychology” (PSY 363) class at Campbellsville University.  The statistical analysis provided in this study met the requirements of the assignment.  Moreover to protect the confidentiality of my participants, the original questionnaires were destroyed after having completion of statistical analysis required by the assignment.  

Discussion

In researching the attitudes of these Christian college students towards the mentally ill, I found a significant difference in attitudes between students who had read the Carlson article and students who had read the Alice essay.  The students who read the article by Carlson had a significantly better attitude towards the mentally ill as indicated by the survey than the students who did not read this article, which supports my hypothesis.  My findings correspond with that of Yasuda, Tsuda, & Shimodera (2001) which showed that education significantly improved the attitudes of people towards the mentally ill. 

            These findings also match with the findings of Hahn (2002), who did a study which showed the positive effect that education has on people’s attitudes towards those who have mental illness.

            My findings appear to indicate that educating Christians about mental illness might help improve their general attitudes towards the mentally ill.  It would be interesting to do further research using participants who are not Christians to see if there is a difference in attitudes towards the mentally ill between Christians and non-Christians. 

            One limitation may be that my sample consisted of Christian college students from a Baptist college.  It would be helpful to know the real affiliation of the participants to see if denominational affiliation affects the results.

            The conclusion I have drawn from this study is that it appears to be helpful to educate Christians about mental illness.  Such education has the possibility of improving the attitude of Christians toward those who suffer from mental illness.  The American Baptist Association (ABA) is already making strides to resolve negative attitudes held by Christians towards the mentally ill.  Over a decade ago, the ABA had drafted several resolutions that encourage helpful steps toward positive Christian relations with persons who suffer from mental illness.  For example, the ABA encourages providing education about mental illness, having on-going reassessments of attitudes towards the mentally ill, and offering ministries specifically for those with mental illness (American Baptist Association, 1992).

            In light of my research, I would contend that Christians who have been educated about mental illness could learn to show more empathic support to those who have a mental illness.  Such compassion and understanding can potentially increase the self-esteem of the mentally ill.  Moreover, it may assist with a person’s ability to cope with his or her mental illness or even recover from mental illness, depending upon the particular illness.  Often times Christians who are not educated about mental illness may offer seemingly well-intentioned advice, such as, “Just take it to God,” or “You need to pray harder.”  However, such “advice” may leave the mentally ill (especially a Christian with a mental illness) feeling guilty about their illness.  Mental illness is not a sin; it is a disorder.  I conclude that Christians who have been educated about mental illness can offer empathy, support, care and even treatment that could have significant benefits for those persons who suffer from mental illness.  Such general speculation has been formulated on the basis of my research.  Further research to support such a supposition is warranted.  Furthermore, research regarding the attitudes of the mentally ill towards Christians who provide positive support and assist in treatment would be very beneficial.

References

American Baptist Association. (1992). American Baptist Resolution on Mental Illness. Accessed 7-22-2003,  http://bipolar.about.com/gi/dynamic/offsite.htm?site=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.abc-usa.org%2Fresources%2Fresol%2Fmentill.htm.

Carlson, D.L. (1998, February 9). “Exposing the Myth that Christians Should Not Have Emotional Problems.” Christianity Today, Vol. 42/2: 28

Gray, A. J. (2001). “Attitudes of the public to mental health: a church congregation.”  Mental Health, Religion & Culture. Vol. 4/1: 71-79.

Granello, D. H., & Granello, P. F. (2000). “Defining Mental Illness: The relationship between college students’ beliefs about the definition of mental illness and tolerance.” Journal of College Counseling. Vol. 3/2:  100.

Hahn, A. (2002). The Effect of Information and Prior Contact on Attitudes Towards Mental Illness. Accessed 7-22-2003, http://www.iusb.edu/~journal/2002/hahn/hahn.html.

Mazur, J.E. (2002). Learning and Behavior, 5th edition. Prentice Hall: Upper Saddle River, NJ.

Mino, Y., Yasuda, N., Tsuda, T., & Shimodera, S. (2001). “Effects of a one-hour educational program on medical students’ attitudes to mental illness.” Psychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences. Vol. 55: 501-507.

Smith, R. A. & Davis, S. F. (2001). The Psychologist as Detective: An Introduction to Conducting Research in Psychology. 2nd edition. Prentice Hall: Upper Saddle River, NJ.

Appendix

Please be as honest as possible when filling out this questionnaire.

For someone with severe depression, do you think they:

a) Have only themselves    1 2 3 4 5     Are not to blame for their condition
    to blame for their 
    condition                                            

b) Could pull themselves   1 2 3 4 5    Can’t do anything to improve how they feel
     together if they wanted    

c) Need only to seek the    1 2 3 4 5    Need to seek professional help besides the church (but may include)
    church/God for help
    

d) Feel the way we all do  1 2 3 4 5     Feel different from the way we all do at times
    at times                   

For someone with an eating disorder, do you think they:

a) Have only themselves   1 2 3 4 5      Are not to blame for their condition
    to blame for their
    condition

 b) Could pull themselves  1 2 3 4 5     Can’t do anything to improve how they feel
      together if they
      wanted

c) Need only to seek the   1 2 3 4 5     Need to seek professional help
    church/God for help              
    besides the church (but
    may include)

For a person with schizophrenia, do you think they:

a) Have only themselves   1 2 3 4 5      Are not to blame for condition
    to blame for their
    condition

b) Could pull themselves  1 2 3 4 5      Can’t do anything to improve how they feel
     together if they wanted
             

c) Need only to seek the   1 2 3 4 5       Need to seek professional help  the church (but may include)
    church/God for help                  
  
For people with mental illness in general, do you think that they:

a) Are strong spiritually/   1 2 3 4 5    Are weak spiritually/mentally
    mentally

b) Can not ever recover     1 2 3 4 5    Can recover fully
    fully

c) Are committed/              1 2 3 4 5    Are lazy
    hard-working

d) Are not dangerous          1 2 3 4 5    Are dangerous

e) Should never take           1 2 3 4 5    Should take medication
    medication

Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ?     Yes     No

(The first page of this questionnaire was taken from Gray’s research (Gray, 2001). I created the questions that appear on the second page of this questionnaire.)