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Development in children’s conceptions of mental illness : relations to social perspective coordination and emotional understanding Pedersen, Cory L.

Abstract

The present study provided a first step in the integration of our efforts to understand more clearly children's conceptions of mental illness. Gender and age changes in conceptions of mental illness (i.e., recognition of adaptive functioning, estimations of positive prognosis, attributions of causality, and attitudes toward peers with mental illness) were examined in relation to social perspective coordination and emotional understanding to determine whether children's conceptions are associated with concomitant levels of development in these constructs. Further, these social cognitive constructs were explored as potential mechanisms underlying children's conceptions of psychopathology to determine their relative influence in predicting dimensions of mental illness conceptions. To this end, 160 children across grades one, four, and seven were read a series of mental illness vignettes and were administered measures assessing their conceptions of mental illness, perspective taking skills, emotional understanding, and receptive verbal ability. The results generally revealed significant increases across grades in both social perspective coordination and emotional understanding and significant decreases in the positive beliefs of mental illness composite score. Children's attributions of causality for mental illness were also shown to be associated with changes in social perspective coordination and emotional development. Moreover, a generally consistent age-related increase in the use of psychological illness attributions of causality and an age-related decrease in the use of physical/biological explanations across different types of disorders were revealed. Finally, the results demonstrated that all children perceived the conduct-disordered vignette character as the most severe and least likeable character with a poorer long-term prognosis. This finding suggests that regardless of age, participants perceive antisocial behavior as most demonstrative of mental illness in terms of severity, prognosis, and likeability. Theoretical and practical implications of these findings are discussed in terms of the strengths and limitations of the present study and suggestions for future research.

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