Reducing mental illness stigma: What types of images are most effective?

Roma Subramanian, Jonathan B. Santo

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


Public stigma against mental illness is a barrier to treatment and recovery. Research into the design of anti-stigma messages has focused heavily on text; there is limited information on what types of images are most persuasive in eliciting anti-stigma outcomes. This is important to study because the type of image used to depict an illness can influence how the illness is perceived, which in turn can affect how people with the illness are treated. Through an online experiment with 162 American adults, this study investigated whether mental illness narratives about depression illustrated with photographs are more effective than those illustrated with cartoons at reducing stigma. It was found that the illustrated narratives, whether with photo or cartoon, produced more anti-stigma effects than the text-only narrative (control). Further, the photographic narrative was more effective than the cartoon narrative in eliciting closeness to the story protagonist and willingness to donate to mental health services. The study’s findings indicate that images should be used in anti-stigma messages on depression; further, regarding image type, photographs should be considered over cartoons as they are more effective in eliciting certain anti-stigma outcomes.Implications for Practice This study suggests that images have strong anti-stigma effects and that photographs are sometimes more persuasive than cartoons. These findings can inform best-practice guidelines for designing anti-stigma messages, created and disseminated by organisations such as the United States’ National Alliance on Mental Illness and Mental Health America. Images in these messages should be selected carefully as they can influence how people with mental illness are perceived and treated.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)52-61
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Visual Communication in Medicine
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2021


  • Mental illness
  • cartoon
  • images
  • narrative
  • photograph
  • stigma

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Health Professions (miscellaneous)
  • Visual Arts and Performing Arts


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