Aims – Based on findings from population surveys, we provide an overview of the public's emotional reactions to people with mental illness. Methods – A literature search for populations studies using measures of emotional response to people with mental illness was carried out. In addition, data on the public's emotional reactions, originating from representative surveys conducted in Germany in the years 1990, 1993 and 2001, were analysed. Results – Positive emotional reactions to people with mental illness are most prevalent, followed by fear and anger. This pattern appears relatively stable across different cultures. In recent years, the emotional response of the public remained unchanged or even deteriorated. The public seems to react quite differently to people with different mental disorders. Emotional reactions have a substantial effect on the desire for social distance. The association between familiarity with mental disorder and the desire for social distance is to a considerable extent mediated through emotions. Conclusions – The public's emotional reactions to people with mental disorder are relatively under-researched. More research may help better understand the complexities of the stigma surrounding mental illness. Interventions aimed at reducing the stigma of mental illness may benefit from paying more attention to emotions.