Sociology Mental Illness
Krysia N. Mossakowski
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 December 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 19 December 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0087


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.

General Overviews

A number of works provide general overviews of the main issues in the sociology of mental health and illness. Aneshensel and Phelan 1999, an edited handbook, is one of the first comprehensive overviews of the sociological literature on mental health, which is very useful for graduate students. The main premise is that mental disorder is not equally dispersed throughout society, but occurs more often within socially disadvantaged groups. Scheid and Brown 2010 provides overviews and updates our knowledge about the relationship between society and mental illness, which is also ideal for graduate students. For undergraduate classes on the sociology of mental illness, several excellent textbooks have been popular. For example, Cockerham 2011 has concise chapters that introduce students to the influence of social factors on mental illness, the utilization of mental health treatment, treatment options, and both legal and policy issues. Gallagher 2002 offers chapters that briefly highlight historical and environmental perspectives on different types of mental illnesses. Rogers and Pilgrim 2010, an undergraduate textbook, draws upon various social theories to understand mental illness and provides a critical perspective of the mental health profession. Tausig, et al. 2003, designed for undergraduate students, explores the different social antecedents of mental illness and the societal response at different points in history. McLeod and Wright 2009 offers a collection of key research articles to guide graduate and undergraduate students through the controversies in this field. Finally, Avison, et al. 2007 offers one of the best selections of chapters designed to reflect on the past, present, and possible future of the sociology of mental health and illness.

  • Aneshensel, Carol S., and Jo C. Phelan, eds. 1999. Handbook of the sociology of mental health. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum.

    This handbook, useful for graduate and undergraduate students, has chapters by leading scholars that investigate the social distribution, antecedents, and consequences of mental illness, and different institutional contexts.

  • Avison, William R., Jane D. McLeod, and Bernice A. Pescosolido, eds. 2007. Mental health, social mirror. New York: Springer.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-0-387-36320-2

    This book has chapters selected from the sociology of mental health, which illuminate where the field has been and where it is now, as well as providing a glimpse of its future. Prominent sociologists discuss not only the theoretical genesis of this field, but also the social origins and responses to mental illness.

  • Cockerham, William C. 2011. Sociology of mental disorder. 8th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.

    Designed for undergraduate classes, this textbook uses a sociological perspective to examine the types of mental disorders, causes, treatments, help-seeking behavior, the mental hospital patient, community care, public policy, legal issues, and the mental health effects of social class, age, gender, marital status, and race/ethnicity.

  • Gallagher, Bernard J. 2002. The sociology of mental illness. 4th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.

    This undergraduate textbook explores the social forces that influence mental illness. Many important topics are addressed, such as cross-cultural definitions of mental illness, social stress theory, types of mental disorders, the social epidemiology of mental illness, and becoming a patient in a psychiatric hospital and being an ex-patient.

  • McLeod, Jane D., and Eric R. Wright, eds. 2009. The sociology of mental illness: A comprehensive reader. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    This collection of well-known articles guides students to learn about the main theoretical and empirical debates and studies with diverse methods, and to develop an informed opinion about social policy and ethical questions regarding people who are suffering from mental illness.

  • Rogers, Anne, and David Pilgrim. 2010. A sociology of mental health and illness. 4th ed. Berkshire, UK: Open Univ. Press.

    This textbook, for undergraduate and graduate students, addresses a variety of perspectives on mental health and illness, stigma, social factors, mental health professions, treatment, psychiatry and legal control, utilization of mental health services, public mental health, well-being, and happiness.

  • Scheid, Teresa L., and Tony N. Brown, eds. 2010. A handbook for the study of mental health: Social contexts, theories, and systems. 2d ed. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    This book for graduate students and undergraduate students offers a comprehensive examination of mental health and illness within different social contexts. Three main parts of the book include conflicting perspectives of mental illness, social statuses, and mental health systems and policy. The first edition (Allan Horwitz and Teresa Scheid, eds., 1999) is also a key resource.

  • Tausig, Mark, Janet Michello, and Sree Subedi. 2003. A sociology of mental illness. 2d ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.

    This undergraduate textbook provides a concise overview of the history of societal reactions to mental illness, the social causes and consequences of mental illness, the stress process, labeling theory, medicalization, and how different social statuses (e.g., gender, socioeconomic status, race/ethnicity) and social roles (e.g., spouse, parent, worker) influence mental health.

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