The stigma of homelessness as a function of mental illness comorbidity

Date of Award


Degree Name

M.A. in Clinical Psychology


Department of Psychology


Advisor: Roger N. Reeb


Although research has focused on stigma toward individuals with mental illness and homeless individuals in separate studies, there is a dearth of research examining the extent to which stigmatization is exacerbated when there is a coexistence of mental illness and homelessness. The present study examined how a person's stigmatizing attitudes and discriminatory behaviors differ depending on: (a) whether or not there is a coexisting mental illness; and (b) whether the mental illness developed before or during homelessness. The study examined two hypotheses: (1) participants will have significantly greater negative reactions to vignettes that portray the homeless person as having a mental illness; (2) relative to participants who read a vignette portraying a homeless person who developed mental illness during homelessness, those who read a vignette portraying a person with mental illness before becoming homeless will report higher blame, anger, perception of dangerousness, fear, support for segregation and coercion, and less pity and willingness to help. Undergraduate students (N = 243) were randomly assigned to vignette conditions: (1) mental illness onset prior to homelessness; (2) mental illness onset following homelessness; (3) homeless person with mental illness without information about mental illness onset; and (4) homeless person without mental illness. After reading vignettes, participants completed measures of stigma-related reactions (Corrigan et al., 2003). One unique feature of the study is that it statistically controlled for the social desirability bias (Paulhus, 1991). The hypotheses were partially supported, and the study yielded three patterns of results. First, when the vignette character had both homelessness and mental illness, participants exhibited: greater perception of dangerousness, feelings of fear, and support for segregation and coercion. Second, when the homeless person was not described as having mental illness, however, participants expressed greater feelings of personal blame, less pity, and more anger. Third, when the vignette character was described as developing mental illness during homelessness, as opposed to having a mental illness preceding homelessness, participants expressed greater feelings of personal blame, fear, support for segregation, and desire to avoid the vignette character. While some findings were contrary to hypotheses, even these findings converged on an interpretable pattern that is interesting in light of past research and theory. Overall, the findings converged on the following pattern: (1) while people have greater fear of homeless individuals with a coexisting mental disorder, they are less likely to blame homeless individuals when mental illness is documented; and (2) people are more stigmatizing toward homeless individuals if they perceive mental illness as causing homelessness, as opposed to mental illness developing as a reaction to homelessness. Results are interpreted within the context of past theory and research, and recommendations for future research are delineated. Implications of the findings are considered for clinical work as well as community interventions focused on reducing stigma.


Mentally ill homeless persons, Homeless persons Mental health, Discrimination against the homeless, Mental illness Social aspects, Undergraduates Attitudes, Stigma (Social psychology), Clinical psychology; stigma; homelessness; mental illness; attitudes; dangerousness; blame

Rights Statement

Copyright 2013, author