Summarizing mental health research conducted by sociologists over the last 30 years, A Sociology of Mental Illness provides a consistent narrative that emphasizes how social statuses and social roles affect mental health. The mental health treatment system and the public's reaction to mental illness are also comprehensively discussed. Topics include social causes and consequences of mental illness; social statuses, such as gender, socioeconomic status, race/ethnicity, age, and community; deviant behavior; and the challenges of community mental health. For those in the fields of sociology, psychology, nursing, and social workers.
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If Alice, caught in Wonderland, ran as fast as she could just to stay in the same place, then many of us feel we are losing ground in our own fast-paced wonderland. Stress is everywhere. No one has enough time. No one has enough money. No one is sure if they will keep their job. There are drugs, crime, AIDS, divorce, suicide, pollution, threats of war, and now threats of terrorist acts. We worry for ourselves and our children. It is no wonder, in our wonderland, that being "stressed out" and "burned out" are commonly understood expressions and commonly observed reactions to modern life. Life can drive us crazy. Reliable estimates suggest that an adult has a fifty-fifty chance of experiencing a mental illness in his or her lifetime.
But everyone's chance is not the same. Rather the frequency of mental illness varies by such factors as gender, socioeconomic status, marital status, neighborhood context, and work status. While some would explain these differences as being due to biological predispositions, sociologists wonder if these social factors themselves might cause people to feel distressed or to become mentally ill. Sociologists have long recognized that the organization of society affects the life chances of its members. The sociology of mental illness suggests that the organization of society also affects the mental health of its members. Economic hardship arising from membership in the lower class, for example, can be demoralizing, and it doesn't take much imagination to conclude that poverty might cause distress. This perspective often implicates as direct causes of disorder the day-to-day experiences of individuals that are related to their membership in one social stratum or another.
In the past thirty years, a distinctive sociological perspective on the meaning, origins, and treatment of mental illness has emerged to address these concerns. The perspective is intended to explain how we get stressed out by considering how the organization of social life affects our psychological states. This impressive body of knowledge adds important insights into human behavior and into collective responses to certain forms of social behavior. Each of the authors has taught courses in our respective college or university utilizing a sociological approach for understanding mental illness, and we felt it was time to create a new summary of this research. We do not claim that our book represents a complete summary of such research, nor that all scholars would agree with our interpretation and organization of the material. Hence this book is a sociology of mental illness, not the sociology of mental illness.
The modern world (our wonderland) is a vastly complex place. It is also full of contradictions stemming from that complexity. For instance, contemporary societies create opportunities for people to realize their dreams. There seems to be no end to the things people can do to make a living and to the chances for people to be who they want to be. But this limitless freedom is an illusion. Complex systems require high degrees of control in order to function well; they put limits, therefore, on what people can actually do. Norms of acceptable behavior serve important limiting functions; hence the contradiction that we sometimes experience between personal autonomy and social constraint. This is what Sigmund Freud called "civilization and its discontents."
Whatever its origins, mental illness can be described as behavior and thought patterns that are not normative and that require control or constraint because of their potential to disrupt individual and collective arrangements. We would mostly agree that mental illness can have negative effects on individual life chances, disrupt families, and, in some instances, threaten the general community and the continuity of social systems. One means for constraining undesirable behavior is to punish it. Another option is to "treat" it.
A casual review of the listing of official diagnostic categories currently used by professional mental health practitioners to treat mental illness is enough to suggest that much of what is considered to be mental illness also represents violations of social norms of behavior. Hence sociologists view mental illness as a way to categorize forms of behavioral deviance for the purpose of controlling them. This perspective emphasizes the idea that mental illness is a social construction or idea, and from there we regard mental illness and its treatment from a sociological perspective as part of a system for the social control of deviance.
Our teaching experience has also made us realize that students do not easily accept the notion that mental illness can have social causes. Although we agree with some of our colleagues that social causes may actually be more important for explaining mental illness than other factors such as genetics and cognitive impairments, we will not make this claim. Rather, our intent is to demonstrate the basis for such a claim and let the readers decide (if they feel the need to do so).
If one in two adults will experience symptoms of mental illness during their lifetime (and this proportion goes up every time the definitions of mental illness expand), then it seems important to understand how this situation arises and how we deal with it. Alice, after all, was threatened with beheading. In our wonderland we may keep our heads but lose our minds.
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