Use Data to Challenge Mental-Health Stigma


Web surveys of attitudes towards mental illness reveal the size of the problem — and offer a way to find fixes, says Neil Seeman.

Written by Andrea Armstrong


The US National Institute of Mental Health considers stigma to be the most debilitating aspect of a mental illness. It is easy to see why. Stigma increases mental distress and leads to shame, avoidance of treatment, social isolation, and, consequently, a deterioration in health.


What form does this stigma take? Is it decreasing for mental illnesses such as depression, as claimed by some media articles? How can it be combated? We don’t know the answers to those questions. That is partly because not enough people have asked them — and partly because not enough people have answered them. Surveys are expensive, and funds, especially for research on mental illness, are limited.

Surveys in the old days saw pollsters with hand-held clipboards quizzing shoppers in department stores. This gave way to the ubiquitous telephone survey. Today, the Internet affords ever more ways to collect survey data. Some years ago, I developed a way to ask questions in an efficient and global manner. It is called Random Domain Intercept Technology and it relies on people — like you — making mistakes while browsing the Internet. Mistyped URLs and broken web links trigger the survey, and invite the user to participate.

Unlike surveys in which people are given cash or rewards to answer questions, this method does not allow for a long-form questionnaire, although it can break down long surveys into shorter mini-surveys. It permits brief questions — often 8 to 15 of them — to be asked, and answered on a voluntary, non-incentivized basis by large numbers of random and anonymous people using the Internet. And that means almost everywhere in the world.