From: Moore. S. et, al (2006): Sociology A2, Collins, London Mental illness has been the forgotten twin to physical illness, in terms of the attention paid to it and the funding provided by the NHS. The issue only comes to the fore when a particularly spectacular event hits the headlines. However mental health is a major problem in society, with about one in seven of the population claiming to have mental health problems at some point in their lives. But mental health is dogged with debates over definitions and over the differences in the extent of mental health problems across different groups in society.
Defining mental illness
Sociology is split between two different approaches regarding how to define mental illness. The two approaches are social realism and social constructionism
Social realism is a general term used to describe the approaches of sociologists who, broadly speaking, accept that there are distinctive sets of abnormal behaviour which cause distress to individuals and to those around them. These forms of abnormal behaviour are classified as mental illness. Social realists such as Pilgrim and Rogers (1999) accept that, at different times and in different cultures, there are variations in what is considered as mental illness. Nevertheless, they argue that, although mental illness may have different names and may or may not be recognized in different cultures, it does actually exist as a real condition.
Social constructionist perspectives have been very influential in sociological approaches to mental illness and start from the argument that what is considered normal varies over time and from society to society. For example, over the last two hundred years in Britain, alcohol consumption has been seen variously as normal, as morally wrong or even illegal, as a sign of being mentally ill and as a central part of a religious ritual. In fact, most of these different attitudes to alcohol can still be found in Britain today! Even greater extremes of behaviour have been seen as normal in some societies and as evidence of madness in others. For example, saying that you are possessed by the spirit of your ancestor would suggest madness in contemporary Britain, but for native Americans, or in some West African religions, it would be a perfectly reasonable statement which most people would believe was true
Mental illness: real or culturally created?
All sociologists agree that there are forms of behaviour that cause considerable stress to the individual involved, and which prevent them from engaging in any meaningful participation in society. They also recognize that how it comes to be defined depends upon cultural differences. Where the difference between realist and constructionist perspectives emerge is more in the stress they place on how far the cultural context determines the levels and types of mental illness. The best way to understand the sociology of mental health is to see it as a continuum, with those who argue for the overwhelming importance of culture at one extreme and those who argue for the existence of common illnesses (which might go under different names, but are essentially the same) at the other extreme.
The labelling perspective
The degree of flexibility about what constitutes normal and abnormal behaviour has been taken furthest by so-called ‘labelling theorists’. Labelling theory examines how labelling occurs in the first place and what effects it has on those who are labelled. Thomas Szasz (1973), for example, argues that the label ‘mental illness’ is simply a convenient way to deal with behaviour that people find disruptive. Labelling theory rests firmly upon a social constructionist definition of mental illness.
The effects of labelling
According to Scheff (1966), whether someone becomes labelled or not is determined by the benefits that others might gain by labelling the person ‘mentally...