Is Mental Illness Socially Constructed?

Last updated: March 8, 2019

The latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) has seen more classifications of mental illness than any previous edition. Does this mean that we are developing more mental illnesses, or are we simply finding new labels for types that have already been around for centuries?

Is Mental Illness Socially Constructed?
Yes because...

Mental illnesses are simply behaviours that are not considered socially acceptable.

There are those that claim mental illnesses to simply be behaviours that are not considered socially acceptable. What’s more, the means of judgment used to make diagnoses of such are not medically but socially and ethically based (Scheff, 1966). In other words, those that don’t behave in the ‘good’ and ‘proper’ way, are cast out from society as misfits.
Throughout the centuries, there has been much evidence to suggest that this has been the case. During the nineteenth century, there was a rise in recognition of a new form of ‘illness’ known as ‘madness’. Along with this, there was also a rise in hospitals and asylums. However, it was not always mental patients that were put into asylums but anyone deemed to be ‘deviant’ (Samson, 1995).
In this way, madness in the asylums was seen to be a tool of social control, an attempt of the authorities to safeguard the running of the country’s economy. As Goffman (1961) argues, the function of asylums was to ‘mould their inmates into some socially approved purpose’.
More recently, look at the case of ADHD. Timimi (2005) points out that this ‘condition’ has become diagnosed more frequently within the last 10 years. He argues that what we understand to be ‘normal’ childhood behaviour is controlled by ‘health experts’, such as psychiatrists and psychologists, defining what behaviour is acceptable and what isn’t. This he says, has lead to a ‘particular version of childhood’ emerging and those who do not fit into it are labelled with mental ‘disorders’ such as ADHD. Timimi suggests that although disorders like these are being treated as a biomedical problem, one which blames the genetic make-up of the child, they in fact have no true biomedical basis: they are socially constructed as an explanation for children who exhibit behaviours outside of the prescribed norm.
No because...
A socially debilitating condition can(and does in most cases) turn into a life threatening condition without treatment. Concerned people should be able to opt for treatment. While people who do not feel that they need/want treatment should have the choice not to.

The nineteenth century(and many centuries before it) saw a barbaric treatment of anyone deemed odd/strange/awkward/threatening, people were picked up and forcibly locked up in asylums for esoteric & suspicious reasons.

Psychiatry/psychology has come a long way since then. There are means of measuring chemical imbalances (serotonin levels being a common example). There are sometimes detectable physical symptoms of mental diseases.

ALL diseases are known to have a psycho(mental) and a Soma (physical) element. Many diseases are psychosomatic, where physical symptoms caused only psychologically emerge without there being any medical explanation(all reports are clear/normal). A common example is of false pregnancy or pseudocyesis [[]]. Many women without ever mating start manifesting symptoms of pregnancy for purely psychological reasons.

What is mental illness? Seeing things differently from all those around you? Not sharing an experience with other people? Frustration over being doubted? Hallucinating (and/or a manifestation of other temporary features of drug abuse)

Is Mental Illness Socially Constructed?
Yes because...

The terms crazy/mad/mentally-ill/mental/bonkers/coo-coo-bananas/demented(even-retard, thought that's a disability not an illness) have been reduced to casual insults rather than real official medical terms.

It is now seen as ignorant to call a psych patient, that. People who would have in the past been termed 'mentally ill'(or any of the term's equivalents) are now just new-age-y hip fashionable therapy buffs.

No because...
It may have started off being mostly only 'socially constructed' but in contemporary medicine it is only an illness(where you are prescribed health-care) if a different mental-perspective/mind-set makes one a danger to him/her-self or society.

Or that a person her/himself feels that s/he will not be able to function without treatment.

Is Mental Illness Socially Constructed?
No because...

Surely the fact that mental illnesses have been around for centuries...

Proves that they are not socially constructed? Social systems have changed drastically over these centuries and yet the concept of mental illness - or at least that some people behave oddly and their minds aren't working in the same way as others - has pretty much always existed in some form or another. This is not only in the same culture over hundreds of years, but also in several cultures that are very different to each other. Much of what is seen as faulty, or how people are treated when they show signs of faults, is different from culture to culture, but much is the same.
Yes because...
Maybe this points to a fundamental similarity in human cultures rather than a fundamental truth of the existence of mental illness.

Continue the Debate - Leave a Comment

2 Comment threads
0 Thread replies
Most reacted comment
Hottest comment thread
2 Comment authors
Notify of

no because,
Mental illness is brought by many factors, instead of defining it as abnormal due to the fact when that behavior, doesnt seem to be normal in a certain culture or norms, there is much differences and perculiarity of abnormal behavior than what is being normal. Although what is “normal” from “abnormal” is really hard to delineate at a given time pace, culture, ethnoculture, generation by generation, we can see that there are people who failed to perform certain task and live meaningfully which is not merely upon on what culture expected us to behave.