Krysia N. Mossakowski
A growing area in sociology investigates the social causes and consequences of mental health and illness. The social causes of mental illness have included disadvantaged social statuses and stress. Social stress theory became prominent in the 1980s and continues to guide many sociological studies. This perspective asserts that mental health problems are caused by exposure to social stress (based on social statuses and earlier life experiences), as well as vulnerability to stress (a limited ability to cope because of low levels of social support, self-esteem, or mastery). The literature on the social determinants of mental health has focused on a variety of social statuses, such as socioeconomic status, gender, age, and race/ethnicity. Research on disadvantaged socioeconomic status and mental illness emerged in the late 1950s. In recent decades, longitudinal studies on the temporal ordering of the relationship between socioeconomic status and mental health have tested the competing hypotheses of social causation and social selection/drift. In the mid-1970s, sex-role theory stimulated controversy about the prevalence rates and explanations for why females are more likely to have internalized mental disorders (e.g., depression) and males are more likely to have externalized disorders (e.g., substance abuse/dependence). This debate about gender differences in mental illness was revisited recently with national and cross-national data. Since the early 1980s, life course theory has informed research on the influence of age on mental health. Studies on the relationship between racial/ethnic status and mental health have begun to proliferate. Yet the accumulated evidence of racial/ethnic mental health disparities remains inconclusive. Since the 1960s, the negative social consequences of being diagnosed with a mental illness have continued to be addressed by sociological theories about labeling and stigma. Sociologists have also critically examined the organization of mental health care, treatment utilization, and public policies. Another important contribution of sociologists is medicalization theory, which elucidates the social construction of mental illnesses with an examination of how deviant thoughts, feelings, and behaviors have been transformed into symptoms to be treated medically. More recently, a debate erupted among sociologists about how to measure mental health and illness. Overall, the readings here show the development of research and theories in the sociology of mental illness by highlighting groundbreaking studies and controversies. In contrast to the biological perspective, which targets genetics and a chemical imbalance in the brain as the causes of mental illness, the sociological perspective emphasizes the influence of society via social contexts, relationships, roles, and statuses.
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