Eugenics, genetics, and mental illness stigma in Chinese Americans

Ahtoy J. WonPat-Borja, Lawrence H. Yang, Bruce G. Link, Jo C. Phelan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background The increasing interest in the genetic causes of mental disorders may exacerbate existing stigma if negative beliefs about a genetic illness are generally accepted. China's history of policy-level eugenics and genetic discrimination in the workplace suggests that Chinese communities will view genetic mental illness less favorably than mental illness with non-genetic causes. The aim of this study is to identify differences between Chinese Americans and European Americans in eugenic beliefs and stigma toward people with genetic mental illness. Methods We utilized data from a 2003 national telephone survey designed to measure how public perceptions of mental illness differ if the illness is described as genetic. The Chinese American (n = 42) and European American (n = 428) subsamples were analyzed to compare their support of eugenic belief items and measures of stigma. Results Chinese Americans endorsed all four eugenic statements more strongly than European Americans. Ethnicity significantly moderated the relationship between genetic attribution and three out of five stigma outcomes; however, genetic attribution actually appeared to be de-stigmatizing for Chinese Americans while it increased stigma or made no difference for European Americans. Conclusions Our findings show that while Chinese Americans hold more eugenic beliefs than European Americans, these attributions do not have the same effect on stigma as they do in Western cultures. These results suggest that future anti- stigma efforts must focus on eugenic attitudes as well as cultural beliefs for Chinese Americans, and that the effects of genetic attributions for mental illness should be examined relative to other social, moral, and religious attributions common in Chinese culture.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)145-156
Number of pages12
JournalSocial psychiatry and psychiatric epidemiology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2012


  • Chinese American Mental illness
  • Eugenics
  • Genetics
  • Stigma

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Epidemiology
  • Health(social science)
  • Social Psychology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health


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