Teaching: Applying a Growth Mindset to Mental Disorders

Aimed at integrating cutting-edge psychological science into the classroom, Teaching Current Directions in Psychological Science offers advice and how-to guidance about teaching a particular area of research or topic in psychological science that has been the focus of an article in the APS journal Current Directions in Psychological Science.

More teaching resources in this Observer: Are Romantic Relationships Actually Good for Mental Health?

Ahn, W. & Perricone, A. M. (2022). Impacts of learning one’s own genetic susceptibility to mental disorders. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 32(1), 42-48.

Recent scientific advances allow people to learn more about their genetic risk for various conditions or disorders. Although genetic profiling can provide useful information that can enhance personalized treatment plans for individuals, Ahn and Perricone (2023) argue that learning more about one’s genetic risk for mental disorders can have unintended and potentially negative consequences.  

When people learn that they have an increased risk for depression or schizophrenia, for example, they can become more pessimistic about their prognosis or ability to improve. People may also believe that having an increased genetic risk for a mental disorder implies that it is a permanent part of their identity. But why?

Ahn and Perricone suggest that one explanation comes from the types of beliefs or mindsets people have about the genetics of psychological disorders. People may believe that mental disorders are immutable to change (a fixed mindset) versus believing they are malleable or fluid over time (a growth mindset). The authors suggest that people may believe that genetic factors, such as having a greater risk for developing substance use disorder, implies that the given condition must be a fixed part of who one is and hence cannot be changed by environmental factors or personal decision. Ahn and Perricone suggest this stems from the concept of  psychological essentialism, or the belief that categories—like mental disorders—reflect or are based on a deeper and somehow fundamental essence of a person (Medin & Ortony, 1989). 

Landmark studies by Carol Dweck and colleagues demonstrated that a growth mindset, by contrast, can shape psychological outcomes in positive ways. For example, a growth mindset about one’s intelligence—believing intellectual abilities can be developed and grow through effort and learning strategies—has been associated with better academic performance for students (e.g., Dweck & Yeager, 2019). Similarly, believing that one’s emotions are more controllable is associated with better greater well-being, fewer depressive symptoms, and better social adjustment in college students (Tamir et al., 2007).  

Can adopting a growth mindset about one’s own mental health risks also have positive outcomes?  

The authors discuss potential antidotes to the “prognostic pessimism” people may have about their mental health risks. This includes teaching people about common misconceptions about genetics, and scientifically studying whether teaching people about the malleability of genes could lead to better mental health.  

Evidence-based treatments might include a component aimed at cultivating a growth mindset for mental health, or the belief that mental disorder categories and symptoms are malleable and can improve over time. Nurturing a growth mindset for mental disorders not only benefits the individual but may go one step toward reducing broader mental health stigma (Hinshaw & Stier, 2008) in society as a whole.

Student Activity

Feedback on this article? Email [email protected] or login to comment. Interested in writing for us? Read our contributor guidelines


APS regularly opens certain online articles for discussion on our website. Effective February 2021, you must be a logged-in APS member to post comments. By posting a comment, you agree to our Community Guidelines and the display of your profile information, including your name and affiliation. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations present in article comments are those of the writers and do not necessarily reflect the views of APS or the article’s author. For more information, please see our Community Guidelines.

Please login with your APS account to comment.