Archival data from a cross-sectional survey of two cohorts of community-residing New Zealand adults (n = 157; n = 141) was analysed to examine social attitudes towards people with mental illness in a historical period associated with the establishment of a community mental health facility. Participants completed the Opinions about Mental Illness (OMI; Cohen & Struening, 1959), and the Comfort in Interaction Scale (CI, Beckwith & Mathews, 1994); the latter a measure of level of prior contact with people with mental illness. Across cohorts, the OMI Mental Hygiene subscale and the CI scale had significant variability. Older participants endorsed more Authoritarian, Social Restrictiveness and Interpersonal Ideology attitudes in their perception of people with mental illness than younger participants. Data supported the hypothesis that attitudes towards people with mental illness were influenced by social attitudes, and by opportunities to interact with people with mental illness in work settings.