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Social Psychology Explains The Discrimination Against Mental Health Diagnoses

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This essay will evaluate how effective social psychological theories are at explaining discrimination against employees with mental health diagnoses in the workplace using the Social Learning Theory (Bandura, 1977) and the Social Identity Theory (Tajfel and Turner 1979). Goffman (1963) described mental illness discrimination as the result of “an individual possessing a devalued attribute which is deeply discrediting” which is then considered as justified to cause a hostile response from society. Social psychology helps psychologists to understand how individuals think and behave in a range of social situations, including why groups of people get into conflict with each other (Holttum, 2014). Baldwin and Marcus (2011) discovered that “unemployment rates in this population are much higher than those of the general population or any other group of individuals with disabilities.” This shows that discrimination extends from the workplace into a wider issue of people with mental health diagnoses not becoming employed. In 2017 the Mental Health and Wellbeing in Employment Report published that mental health issues in the workplace cost employers “up to £42 billion a year, and that 3 out of 5 employees experience mental health issues because of work”. Furthermore the report found that only 13% of employees surveyed felt able to disclose a mental health issue to their manager, suggesting they feel they would be discriminated against if they revealed their mental health diagnosis. Additionally this report demonstrates that mental health discrimination still a current issue. Recent studies suggest that the discrimination is due to a “desire for social distance from people with mental illness” (Lauber et al. 2006; Nordt et al. 2005). Examples of discrimination in the workplace could be; dehumanizing communication, infantilization and promotion of lowered expectations.

Social Learning Theory (SLT) explains how the media and/or role models affect discrimination against employees with mental health diagnoses in the workplace. Behaviours can be acquired through direct experience or through the observation and imitation of others (often called observational learning or modeling). The Bobo Doll experiments (Bandura, Ross and Ross, 1961) demonstrated a role model being violent to an object and a child imitating this. This can be applied to the workplace as a role model could be a boss or another employee who discriminates against those with mental health and so other employees imitate this. Other role models can be found in the media. Research has shown that media is a influential force in shaping the image of mental illness, for example news reporters often emphasis the violent, delusional and irrational behaviour of people with mental health illness to sensationalize headlines and attract attention (Coverdale, Nairn and Claasen, 2002).

Research examining newspapers, movies and television finds a largely consistent picture, indicating that individuals with mental illness are hardly ever portrayed in a positive light, for example in the recent movie Split (2017) where the main character was a murderous schizophrenic, this demonstrates that images of danger and unpredictability dominate. When examining media statistics, one in four mentally ill characters kill someone and half are portrayed as hurting someone, making the mentally ill group the most likely to be involved in violence in media (Diefenbach, 1997). Despite these statistics being outdated they are still relevant as shown in a recent American survey where 46% believed that individuals with mental illness were far more dangerous than the general population (Barry et al 2013). This demonstrates the television industry do little to convey that people with mental health illnesses can become productive members of society, and so productive members of a work environment. This stigma impairs the self-esteem; help-seeking behaviours and general recovery of those with mental health diagnosis. SLT is a contemporary issue as a result of social media, this is due to employees having easy access to social media sites such as the news, Facebook and Twitter which impact their behaviour and ideas causing discrimination. Beck (1967) explains this by saying “people’s interpretation and thoughts regarding a specific situation influence their emotions and behaviours” hence reading a news article describing a person with a mental health diagnosis being violent could cause a person in the workplace to change their behaviours towards an employee with the same diagnosis.

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Despite this SLT cannot fully explain why there is discrimination against employees with mental health diagnoses in the workplace as there are many mental health advocates on the media, which promote human-interest stories about people who live with mental illness and public debates, suggesting that there are other theories, which together cause the discrimination. SLT and the media has a wider implication, the Equality Act in 2010 protects disabled people from unfair treatment, this includes many people with a mental illness. It is the law that protects a person from discrimination and gives them the right to challenge it. However individuals are spending more and more time online using social media and are therefore more likely to come across discriminating content. This suggests discrimination will increase rather than decrease despite the act. The Global Digital Report (2018) found that the number of social media users worldwide in 2018 is 3.196 billion, up 13 percent year-on-year, supporting the fact that more people access social media every year. SLT also doesn’t explain why the employees would have negative thoughts and feelings towards the mental health diagnosed employees if they have only observed actions, despite this SLT has been used to explain many other behaviours such as binge drinking and body image demonstrating that it does have an effect on behaviour.

Social identity theory (SIT) also can be used to explain the discrimination against mental health diagnosed employees in the workplace. SIT considers group membership and how people’s behaviours change depending on which in-group they are in, as they want to distance themselves from the out-group. In the case of the work place the out-group would be employees with mental health diagnoses and the discrimination is an attempt to distance themselves. Haslam (2014) explains that being in a social group helps people to see themselves positively but in contrast they are likely to see another group as less desirable than themselves, fueling conflict (discrimination) between the groups. Tajfel (1981) defined SIT as “the individuals knowledge that he belongs to certain social groups with some emotional and value significance to him of the group membership”. The minimal groups experiments (Tajfel and Turner 1979) support this theory, when the participants (who had no history of conflict) were put into groups in conflict, the differentiation between groups was more important than self-profit, this demonstrates how easy it is to become an out-group and become discriminated against. Central to SIT is the idea of the social self (or the group self; Ellemers, 2012) where individuals define who they are through their membership in social groups, in most cases individuals are motivated to retain a positive self concept so they promote the image of their social group which can result in preferential treatment of in group members (Dovido and Gaertner, 2010). This shows that a possible reason for discrimination is to retain a positive self-concept; furthermore members who threaten to undermine the positive in-group image become the out-group (those with mental health diagnoses) (Lewis and Sherman 2003). A real life example of SIT would be Tommy Robinson, an English far-right activist who is serving as a political adviser to the leader of the UK independence party (UKIP) and previously founded the English defense league (EDL) in 2009. According to Robinson the organisation was “against the rise of radical Islam” but members described themselves as “anti-muslim”, this example demonstrates that the in-group were the EDL and anyone who held negative feelings towards muslim citizens or their culture being part of Britain and the out-group were muslims, additionally this shows the extent to which SIT can affect individuals behaviours as a result of their social group, and also shows that individuals will make profound personal sacrifices (even giving up their life to imprisonment) to ensure the success of their group.

According to SIT peoples group memberships can cause conflict if they are in competition or have opposing ideas due deciding to belong to a group and that belonging can affect the way they behave. Contradicting this, Haslam (2014) suggests a leadership model called ASPIRe, which brings out individuals group memberships out into the open. This creates a shared sense of identity through valuing all group memberships rather than seeking to impose a shared identity from the top down. People with stigmatized diagnoses (such as mental health) are considered to have a relatively low status in the organizational hierarchy, so unless all groups are identified only the needs of the most powerful groups are met, this model should be applied to the work place by organizing workshops or group activities to reduce discrimination. SIT explains why certain groups discriminate against individuals with mental health diagnoses but fails to explain how individuals gain these discriminating ideas in the first place, this is better explained by SLT and the use of role models and the media. Also it is important to note that SIT is not as clear as in-group vs. out-group as individuals are in multiple groups depending on context, SIT’s acknowledgement of this is limited. For example an individual may be in the mental illness diagnosed out-group in the workplace but may be in the in-group at a football event if they support the same team as their co-workers, in this case would they still be discriminated against? SIT also does not explain if the individual in the in-group was alone would they still take part in the in-group’s associated discriminating behaviors as it suggests it is the group rather than the individual who decides on the behaviors, however it is difficult to find an environment where individuals have to make both individual and joint decisions so this would be difficult to study.

Social psychology can explain the discrimination against employees with mental health diagnoses in the workplace to some extent, SIT and SLT both explain how discrimination arises in different ways. The theory of Social Learning Theory and the media arguably explains discrimination the most however it is difficult to apply this to the workplace and there is also a large amount of mental illness advocates on the media in recent years which the theory does not explain how some people will discriminate and some will advocate. The research about peer employee’ perceptions of mental illnesses in the workplace is important as discrimination may result in negative outcomes such as lower job satisfaction, increased feelings of stress or tension at work, a decrease in volunteering to help co-workers, and lower levels of commitment to the workplace (Deitch et al. 2003, Ensher et al 2001). The research into mental health is challenging because the individuals needs are less obvious and perhaps more complex than those with physical impairments. Social psychology explains well why discrimination takes place in the workplace but explains less well how the discrimination can be reduced, simple ideas in reference to social identity theory could be group work to create new in-groups or in reference to social learning theory using media to increase knowledge and acceptance of those diagnosed with mental health problems, such as using real life stories of those who have suffered and are now successful in the workplace.

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Social Psychology Explains The Discrimination Against Mental Health Diagnoses. (2022, Jun 29). Edubirdie. Retrieved September 24, 2023, from
“Social Psychology Explains The Discrimination Against Mental Health Diagnoses.” Edubirdie, 29 Jun. 2022,
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Social Psychology Explains The Discrimination Against Mental Health Diagnoses [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Jun 29 [cited 2023 Sept 24]. Available from:
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