INTRODUCTION: Stigmatisation of mental illness constitutes a major problem in the development of mental healthcare programs, especially when it originates from health professionals themselves. The aim of this research is to investigate possible attitudes of stigmatisation among first and final year medical students registered at the University of Conakry faculty of medicine in Guinea-Conakry (West Africa).
METHODS: Focus group discussions identified students' attitudes and perceptions in relation to mental illness, their explanatory models, their opinions concerning traditional and modern therapeutic practices with regard to mental illness, and their interest to possibly incorporate psychiatry in their future medical practice.
RESULTS: Many students explicitly regret the stigmatisation of mental health patients, but nevertheless share the general population's prevailing attitudes of discrimination. The dominant stereotype of mental illness is that of madness, although final year medical students describe a more diverse spectrum of mental health problems. There is strong adherence to secular occult explanations of mental illness and advocacy for traditional medicine in addressing these illnesses, including among final year medical students.
DISCUSSION: No student would opt for psychiatry as a specialisation, although some expressed interest in integrating psychiatry into their future medical practice. However, this research indicates that stigmatising attitudes are not cut in stone. Under the impetus of specific teaching programmes, attitudes can evolve to create room for tolerance and compassion.