This study aimed at investigating the relationship between perceived public stigma towards people with schizophrenia (PWS) and their family members in a large sample of medical and psychology students. We hypothesised that: a) schizophrenia labelling would be related to greater perceived public stigma; b) contact with PWS would be related with lower perceived stigma; c) perceived public stigma would be similar between medical and psychology students and would be higher among students attending the clinical stage compared to their pre-clinical colleagues.
Participants were 592 students attending either the pre-clinical or clinical stage of coursework in Medicine and Psychology, at the University of Palermo (Italy) (Tab. I). Study measures included a short socio-demographic questionnaire, the Devaluation of Consumers Scale (DCS), and the Devaluation Consumers Families Scale (DCFS).
Students who identified schizophrenia in an unlabelled clinical description expressed greater perceived public stigma towards PWS (t = -2.895, p = 0.004) and their family members (t = -2.389, p = 0.017). A trend-level association was found between previous contact with PWS and lower perceived public stigma (t = 1.903, p = 0.058), which became significant for those students who had a more extensive contact (Mann-Whitney z = 2.063, p = 0.039). Compared to medical students, psychology students perceived greater public stigma towards PWS. No difference was observed between students at different stages of their academic coursework (Tab. II). In a multivariate linear regression model, schizophrenia labelling and degree course predicted perceived public stigma towards severe mental disorders.
This study replicated previous findings on the relationship between public stigma towards PWS, schizophrenia labelling, and contact with PWS. Perception of public stigma was similar among pre-clinical and clinical students and greater among psychology students. The findings suggest the importance of promoting a critical awareness of negative stereotypes towards schizophrenia among healthcare students, since the beginning of their coursework. In addition to correct information about schizophrenia, anti-stigma intervention should include contact with PWS who live in the community.