What is mental illness?
Mental illness is a myth. Psychiatrists are not concerned with mental illness and their treatments. In actual practice, they deal with personal, social and ethical problems of living (Szasz, 1972).
This is a question that has crossed my mind on many occasions.
‘What is this?’
‘What is happening?’
Thomas Szasz, a sociologist makes a radical proposition that mental illness is just a way of categorising people based on their behaviours – should their behaviours be ones that society disapprove of.
I have taken this to mean that, should you as an individual, not follow the norms of society and behave in a way that society deems ‘normal’, you will then be categorised as having one illness or another.
The article I am reading goes on to explain this in a way that seems to hit the nail right on the head!
If you talk to God, you are praying; if God talks to you, you have schizophrenia.
If the dead talk to you, you are a spiritualist but if you talk to the dead, you are a schizophrenic.
There is obviously controversy regarding this topic and this particular opinion. Edwin Lemert was very keen to stress that certain labels such as paranoia are constructed out of social processes and relationships, rather than being based on a medical basis. This then ties in with self fulfilling prophecies…
‘Fred is uneasy around people, which in turn makes people uneasy around Fred. After starting a new office job, Fred is invited to the staff Christmas party which he declines feeling as though the night would be an ordeal. Staff feel relieved and do not invite Fred to future social gatherings, assuming that Fred will not want to go. Fred is aware of this night out and feels excluded. Fred then reacts to this by isolating himself more and more and avoiding going into the staff room completely. This then leads to staff talking about Fred covertly, to prevent any further reactions from Fred, however, Fred is aware that people are talking about him. Fred then feel paranoid whenever he is at work.’
Lemert (1972) would argue that this is not paranoia born out of mental illness but based out of reality as Fred is being talked about. If Fred then leaves his job due to this paranoia and starts a new job, his experience will follow him and may then result in a vicious cycle. Fred may go into a new job and not have the confidence to start anew, thus he will be repeating past experiences.
Is mental illness based on medical opinion or social norms?
Cunningham, J & Cunningham, S (2013). Sociology and Social Work, Null Learning Matters (pp 20 – 22)