Is mental ‘illness’ socially constructed?
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?
Mental illnesses are simply behaviours that are not considered socially acceptable.
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.
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 [[http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/False_pregnancy]]. 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)
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.
Or that a person her/himself feels that s/he will not be able to function without treatment.
Surely the fact that mental illnesses have been around for centuries...