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What Is Mental Illness?


This medical condition may disrupt a person’s mood, a person’s feelings, and thinking capacity. It is usually manifested in situations in which the patient’s mood may suddenly become aggressive resulting in violence. Just as a stomachache is a problem of the stomach, mental illness is a disorder of the brain, which may cause problems in coping with one’s own life. This leads to a relationship between a mentally ill person and other people becomes very risky in society since in case violence erupts that even death might occur. The daily functioning of the individual is highly affected when a person’s mental condition is not sane; a person suffers from a diminishing capacity to cope with the basic needs and demands in life (National Alliance on Mental Illnesses (NAMI) 2012).

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Mental illness includes symptoms, such as major depressions, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder, etc. Also, others include borderline personality disorder. There are three approaches to mental illness, which may be categorized into biological, psychological, and sociological. The first one includes the determinants of mental illness that are internal (physical body). The second approach deals with the determinants of mental illness that are internal (occur in the mind). Lastly, the sociological method determines the external factors (environment or person’s social situation) (Perring, 2001).

Arguments put forward by sociologists as Scheff, Saas, and Goffman state that mental illness is a social construction

Scheff is not interested in the occasional parts of disagreeing as it is residual deviance that is often defined as a mental illness (Wright, 1984). People labeled as mentally ill adopt the behaviors, which usually differentiate them from other people, hence contributing to the stereotypical normal condition of a mentally ill patient.

He argues that those who express the stereotypical behavior of the mentally ill are rewarded by enterprising psychology professionals.

According to Scheff, everybody expresses the popular symptoms of mental illness at some point in their life through labels are attached to those without power (Tausig, Subedi & Michello, 2003). He presents empirical evidence in his studies examining the process of mental hospital commitment (Holstein, 1993).

In the biomedical sector, mental illness is perceived as a psychiatric disorder characterized by changes in a person’s thoughts, moods, or behaviors that preclude ordinary functioning in one or more spheres of life. The history of our understanding of psychiatric reveals a tension between two schools of thought on the origin of mental disease. The pendulum has swung between these two opposite viewpoints across the centuries.

One view of psychiatric illness is that mental disorders occur due to impaired psychological development as a consequence of childhood trauma or environmental stress and should be called psychosocial psychiatry. These differences in emphasis in terms of the pathogenesis of mental illness are important because the prevailing theory about the origins of mental disease influences what therapies for psychiatric illness predominate (Scheff, 2009.)

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Szasz was one of the earliest scientists who disagreed on the issue that psychiatry was solely dependent on biological innovations. As stated by Scheff (2003), “he is in the great tradition of rebels, those who have attempted to overthrow the status quo” (par. 4). In this light, Szasz challenged the trope of mental illness (Szas, 1960).

He used no concepts which made his approach easier for people to comprehend; thus, even those who were not well-educated could understand his thesis. He used a simple language. However, Scheff (2003) adds, ‘it is much too narrow and simplified to use for analyzing and understanding real cases each of which is apt to be quite complex like most human conduct” (par. 14). It is worth noting that Szasz relied too much on vernacular words, thus reducing his theory (Scheff 2003). Nevertheless, the definition is too broad to grasp its meaning as it includes a lot of problems and issues (Scheff 2003).

Szasz stated that mental illness was not a thing or physical object, but a theory and, as such, needed empirical support. He proclaimed further that the significance of a psychiatric label depended more on the social situation in which it occurred than like the object labeled.

The social model of disability based on social constructionist is meant to distinguish impairment from disability as the word “disabilities” and the term “disabled” is evidenced to differ within the time frame (Conrad & Barker 2010). Disability cannot be reduced to a mere biological problem located in an individual’s body since it is a medical ailment that needs to be well addressed. (Szasz, 1956)

How this differs from a biomedical approach

Certain mental disabilities are linked to the disruption of the chemicals in the brain known as neurons which serve as a communication system between nerve cells in the brain. If the chemicals are not well functioning in the required manner, there will be an interruption in the brain activities as it attempts to comprehend the incoming information from the various body functioning system, hence Szasz’ explanations of mental illness are less likely to treat it since most of them were just theories. Most of his arguments are even rejected by some of his colleagues. Szasz stated that psychiatry could not be considered as a branch of medicine. Biologically, this is not true since psychiatry is highly considered to be a brain disorder (Gorenstein, nd)

Goffman dealt with the emotional perspective of life. Although his approach is very sophisticated, he rarely deals with theories in his explanations. Scheff mentions (2005), “he defines his terms only conceptually at most, without attention to the problem of the goodness of fit actual instances” (par. 15).

His treatment of emotions compared to most social sciences descriptions deals not only with behavior but also with feelings (Scheff 3005). The social concept of impairment does not emanate from the impairment itself but the fabric of everyday life (Conrad & Barker 2010). His fruitful studies go much deeper into human relations, hence revealing completely new conduct of human social life.

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How Goffman’s approach differs from a biomedical approach

In the mid of the 20th century, psychiatric illness was explained as a result of unconscious conflicts over events in individuals; past. This led to the emergence of biological psychiatry hence when the techniques of neuroimaging became available, it allowed the neuroscientists to visualize brain structures and function. Since he was only oriented by his visions, there were no experiments carried out to ascertain that his arguments were worth it. In fact, for something to be ascertained, experiments must be carried out to ensure no failures.


All the analysts worked on their expectations hence their limitation and similar language-based studies are the weakness of the works of Szasz, Goffman, and Scheff as their studies were largely theoretical, and they never proved their theories, which led to the emergence of biomedical research (Scheff 2003). The linguistics working inductively had too little, in particular. They had no theory of emotion and relationship. This move to biologic psychiatry has not, however, excluded the healing value of the therapist-client relationship. It appears that pharmacotherapy in conjunction with psychotherapy is of greater healing power. Perhaps, the distinction drawn between biologic and psychosocial disease is arbitrary.


Conrad, P & Barker, KK 2010, ‘ The Social Construction of Illness: Key Insights and Policy Implications’, Journal of Health and Social Behavior, vol. 51, no. 1suppl., pp. S67-S79.

Gorenstein, EE n.d., Debating Mental Illness Implications for Science, Medicine, and Social Policy. Web.

Holstein, JA 1993, Court-Ordered Insanity: Interpretive Practice and Involuntary Commitment, Aldine, New York.

National Alliance on Mental Illnesses (NAMI) 2012, What is Mental Illness: Mental Illness Facts. Web.

Perring, C 2001, Mental Illness. Web.

Scheff, TJ 2003, Building an Onion: Alternatives to Biopsychiatry. Web.

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Scheff, TJ 2005, New Forward for re-issue of Being Mentally Ill. Web.

Scheff, TJ 2009, Being Mentally Ill: A Sociological Theory, Aldine transaction, New Jersey.

Szasz, T 1960, “The myth of mental illness”, American Psychologist, vol.15, pp. 113-118.

Szasz, TS 1956, “Malingering: “Diagnosis” or social condemnation?”, AMA Arch Neurol. Psychiat, vol. 76, pp. 432-443.

Tausig, M, Subedi, S & Michello, J 2003, Sociology of Mental Illness, Prentice Hall, USA.

Wright, S 1984, Evolution and the Genetics of Populations, Volume 1: Genetic and Biometric Foundations, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

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