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Mental Illness (Essay Sample)


This paper tries to demystify mental illness and it looks at what constructionists think of mental illness.


Mental Illness
What we now call mental illness has had a very long and twisted history. We can find mental illness being shown in cave drawings where men would be drawn doing weird things. During the Middle, Ages the mentally ill persons were put in “ships of the insane” and during the Renaissance period they got publicly whipped. Over the years, there has been a lot of recorded history and many examples whereby the mentally ill people have received harsh treatment from the society. This paper looks at the constructionist view of mental illness and how it is different from the biomedical approach. We will look at the arguments of constructionists like Scheff, Goffman and Szasz. Mental illness is a term that is used to refer to the emotional, behavioral or psychological, disorders as which affect the mind causing a disease of the mind. This is more about the psychological aspect, so when it comes to its treatment different methods from the normal physical treatments are used. For a physical disorder, treatment like acupuncture or traditional medicine may be used but a mental disorder treatment will involve a psychological and a medical approach.
It is very difficult to understand mental illness as it has no physical effects. As a result of this, theories have been written to suggest that mental illness is a social construction. There are many types of mental disorders. These include depression, eating disorders, Schizophrenia and dementia. In our current society, there is a social injustice whereby the mentally ill people get discriminated by the rest of the society.
The argument that mental disorder is socially constructed has been fuelled the fact that there is no a universally accepted definition for mental illness. In 1961, Ausubel defined it as “behavior which is either very distorted to prevent the normal interpersonal relations”. This has brought the question “What is normal?”, Szasz argues that “disease” means “bodily disease” and therefore going on to talk of mental illness is to talk metaphorically, since one's mind is not literally a part of his body.
He goes on to argue that the mental illness as a term has outlasted its usefulness and it now simply functions to “conceal scientific ignorance” (Szasz, 1960)
Social constructionists such as Scheff, Goffman and Szasz have carried out studies on mental illness so as to examine how cultural and social conceptions of mental disorders arise, how they are applied, and how they change. They are different from the traditional views on mental disorders as they are more concerned on the symptoms of mental illness as cultural definitions but not as properties of the individuals. Their argument is that mental illness should be treated by both use of medicine and checking the root cause of the problem. Their argument is that mental illness is caused by environmental and social factors such as stigma, difficult work conditions and family situations different from the medical model.Szasz and Scheff go on to argue that mental disorder is not an illness but it is a label made by other more powerful people in the society. These people may include politicians, doctors and the media whose actions have a negative effect on the people seen as socially disruptive. Constructionist Goffman looks at those people who have had their behavior labeled, and the effects which follow after the label is applied.
What happens when a person is so labeled? Scheff, (1975, p. 10)
In our society, if a person decides to pursue a career in chronic mental illness, he will face many social stigmas which other physiological conditions do not. The label of being insane may be self-fulfilling. When a schizophrenic sees that everyone is treating him as a mad person, he may retreat more into the condition as he tries to protect himself from the harsh judgments of the society.
According to the constructionists, mental disorder is a socially constructed disease as much as it is a physiological disorder. Let us consider schizophrenia, which one of the oldest, and the most documented mental illness but the least understood of the behaviors which fall in the category of mental disorders. About 1 out of 100 people (1%) will get affected by schizophrenia in their lifetime, mostly at the late adolescence or during early adulthood. It is a known fact that schizophrenia has physiological triggers. It has been associated with brain defects and in some cases a genetic predisposition. Postmortem brain tests have revealed excessive receptors for the dopamine, which can be an explanation for the hallucinations and paranoia which schizophrenics experience.
In as much as medical results have shown that there are different cause of mental illness, the society has contributed a lot to the plight of mental disorder. Schizophrenia has been said to be a socially constructed disease as pressure of the society may in some instances cause the problem. As abovementioned, postmortem examinations have revealed that schizophrenics have excessive receptors for dopamine. In some cases, this may have been triggered by the problems that they face in the society.
Social constructionists see the symptoms of mental illness from a cultural point of view rather than the properties of individuals. From the constructionists' point of view, the definition of mental illness will always depend on the culture of a particular view. What may be regarded as mental illness may not be seen as such from another of view. Research has shown that in non-western cultures, there are activities or behaviors which are seen as normal but if taken to a western culture it will be seen as a symptom of mental illness. There is more support for the constructionists' argument from individual's beliefs. For instances, when it comes to suicide, in the catholic belief, this is going against the teachings of Jesus Christ but in the Japanese tradition, it would be seen as a way to pay for one's sins and people would respect that decision. If suicide happens in the catholic setting, it may be seen as a sign of mental problems but in the old Japanese tradition it is a respectable act
So as to examine mental illness, it is important to examine the symptoms which lead to such diagnosis. As stated above each society, has cultural norms, and these are clearly stated. If a person disregards these norms, he is seen as deviant. “Deviance is not really the quality of the committed act but a consequence of the sanctions which others apply to an ‘offender.' A person becomes deviant after the labeling has successfully been applied on him.
Take an example of a person talking to God. When someone is hearing voices and at the...
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