Illness role theory, the labeling perspective and the social meanings of mental illness: An empirical test

University of Nebraska-Lincoln, USA
Social Science & Medicine Medical Psychology and Medical Sociology 12/1979; 13A(6):655-66. DOI: 10.1016/0271-7123(79)90110-X
Source: PubMed


Data from a sample of mental patients and the general public is used to test a series of hypotheses linking the individual's understanding of his deviance to his impairment in social roles and his contact with psychiatric treatment sources. The relationships examined are derived from illness role theory and the labeling or societal reaction theory of mental disorder. While some support is found for both theories, we conclude that neither perspective alone adequately explains the ways in which persons interpret their problematic feelings and behaviors.

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    ABSTRACT: According to the societal reaction perspective, mental illness develops when symptoms are molded and imputed by societal reaction into a stable and organized social role. Individuals are thrust into the role by being labeled mentally ill. In contrast, the psychiatric concept assumes that mental illness is a disease. Its purpose is to order, predict, and control the symptoms of mental disease. This paper examines some social theories of mental disorder and compares the societal reaction perspective to the psychiatric concept.
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    ABSTRACT: Contained in both Parsons' [1, 2] formulation of illness role theory and Scheffs [3, 4] labeling perspective is the assumption that cultural definitions of mental illness are uniform throughout the community. Furthermore, both theorists assert that individuals identified as mentally ill internalize community definitions of their impairment whether positive or negative. Analysis of data of a sample of mental patients and the public lends some support to illness role theory while refuting Scheffs labeling perspective.There is community wide consensus in the moral (wrongness) evaluation of behaviors and feelings which are indicative of mental illness. Public and patient alike judge their own actions as less wrong than the actions of others. Contrary to Scheff [3, 4] the general public judges the actions, feelings and behaviors of the mentally ill as neither wrong nor right.With several exceptions, subgroups of the general public held similar definitions of the implications of traits of mental illness for the impairment of role performance. The highly educated, and patients with high symptom levels indicated their role performance was significantly impaired by mental illness. The results of this research call for labeling theorists to distinguish status as a cause from status as a cue for labeling certain types of actions and feelings as indications of mental illness.
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    ABSTRACT: As Horwitz (1979) notes, the conflict between the labelling explanation of mental illness and the psychiatric explanation of mental illness appears to be unresolved. In the present paper it is suggested that this is because sociologists have ignored recent developments in psychiatry. Considerable evidence is reviewed which supports the psychiatric perspective.
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