The Sociological Study of Mental Illness: A Historical Perspective


Mental illness, as the eminent historian of psychiatry Michael MacDonald once aptly remarked, “is the most solitary of afflictions to the people who experience it; but it is the most social of maladies to those who observe its effects” (MacDonald 1981: 1).  It is precisely the many social and cultural dimensions of mental illness, of course, that have made the subject of such compelling interest to sociologists.  They have responded in a huge variety of ways to the enormously wide social ramifications of mental illness, and the inextricable ways in which the cultural and the social are implicated in what some might view as a purely intrapsychic phenomenon.  If psychiatry has typically, though far from always, focused on the individual who suffers from various forms of mental disorder, for the sociologist, it is naturally the social aspects and implications of mental disturbance for the individual, for his or her immediate interactional circle, for the surrounding community, and for society as a whole, that have been the primary intellectual puzzles that have drawn attention.

How, for example, are we to define and draw boundaries around mental illness, and to distinguish it from eccentricity or mere idiosyncrasy, to draw the line between madness and malingering, mental disturbance and religious inspiration?  Who has social warrant to make such decisions, and why?  Do such things vary temporally and cross-culturally?  How have societies responded to the presence of those who do not seem to share our commonsense notions of reality? Who embrace views of reality that strike others as delusional? Who see objects and hear voices invisible and inaudible to the rest of us? Who commit heinous offenses against law and morality with seeming indifference? Or whose mental life seems so denuded and lacking in substance as to cast doubt on their status as autonomous human actors?

Mental illness has profoundly disruptive effects on individual lives and on the social order we all take for granted.  Erving Goffman, whose mid-twentieth century writings still constitute some of the most provocative and profound sociological meditations on the subject is perhaps best-known for his searing critique of mental hospitals as total institutions, engines of degradation and destruction that falsely put on a medical gloss (Goffman 1961).  But he also spoke eloquently of “the social significance of the confusion [the mental patient] creates,” arguing that it “may be as profound and basic as social existence can get.”  He insisted, rightly in my view, that “Mental symptoms are not, by and large, incidentally a social infraction.  By and large, they are specifically and pointedly offensive…It follows that if the patient persists in his [sic] symptomatic behavior, then must create organizational havoc and havoc in the minds of members [of society].”  Characteristically, Goffman then proceeded to critique the response of our contemporary credentialed experts in the treatment of mental illness” “It is this havoc that psychiatrists have dismally failed to examine.”  But he was equally scathing about many of his contemporaries in the sociological profession, who then sought to dismiss mental illness as a purely socially constructed category, a mere matter of labels.  For sociologists who adopted this romantic view were equally guilty of playing down or ignoring the profoundly disruptive effects of madness on the individual and on society.  (See Goffman 1971: 356-357.)

Accepting, then, that there is such a thing as mental illness (all the while acknowledging that some sociologists and even some renegade psychiatrists have questioned its reality, and still others have debated its designation as a specifically medical problem), a whole series of further questions then arise: How much of it is there, and how do we know, if indeed we do? What is its social location? Does that differ by class, by age, by gender, by race, by ethnicity, and so forth?  Do these social variables have implications for the way mental illness is reacted to and socially managed?  What are the costs of such episodes of mental disturbance to individuals, families, and society as a whole, and how are those costs distributed?   How have societies characteristically responded to mental illness, and what institutions have they constructed to contain and perhaps cure it?  What changes in these responses have occurred over time, and what accounts for these changes?  How has mental illness been conceptualized by professionals, but also by the laity?  And how have these differing cultural meanings been captured, refracted, and distorted in popular culture?  One could go on, and the body of this encyclopedia deals with an even broader array of sociologically relevant topics, but the vital importance of a sociological perspective on mental illness should by now be apparent.

It should come as no surprise to learn, then, that from the discipline’s first days, many sociologists have had something to say about the subject.  Sociology as a discipline began to coalesce in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in France, in Britain, in Germany, and the United States, at first often outside university settings, as in the British social survey tradition pioneered by Charles Booth (1889, 1891, 1892-1897) and Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree (1901), but soon enough within the walls of academic institutions.  The earliest academic sociologists often secured niches in other disciplines – Durkheim’s first appointment at Bordeaux was in Social Science and Pedagogy and his later chair at the Sorbonne was as Professor of Education; and Weber’s at Freiburg was in Economics, as was his next appointment at Heidelberg, but soon enough the discipline managed to institutionalize itself as a separate and legitimate academic endeavor.

Durkheim played a critical role in this process in France, and aggressively sought to claim for sociology a distinctive realm of social facts, external and constraining on the individual.  Much of his work thus had an overtly polemical cast, and even the subject matter he chose was often influenced by its value in establishing the intellectual legitimacy of sociology and its status as a distinct and autonomous science, and in demonstrating the unique power of “the social” in the explanation of sociological phenomena.  “Every time,” he boldly and wrongly proclaimed, “a social phenomenon is directly explained by a psychological phenomenon, we may rest assured that the explanation is false” (Durkheim 1895: 129).  Two years later, he deliberately chose an apparently quintessentially individual act, suicide, and attempted to account for it in social terms.  More precisely, he claimed to detect in the statistics on suicide a whole series of distinct regularities, and it was these regularities in suicide rates for which he proffered a sociological explanation (Durkheim 1897).  Necessarily, he was thereby led to confront the question of insanity and its possible relationship to suicide – mental illness in both its most florid manifestations and in borderline examples of mental disturbance such as alcoholism and what was then called neurasthenia or weakness of the nerves.  To his own satisfaction, at least, Durkheim claimed to have shown that while all of these conditions might predispose an individual towards suicide, it was social factors rather than individual psychopathology that explained the rate at which people killed themselves.  To the extent that socio-psychological states led vulnerable people to commit suicide, those states were themselves the product of sociological factors – in modern societies, most commonly the condition he labeled “anomie,” or the failure of the social order to regulate adequately the beliefs and behaviors of its members. (For critiques of Durkheim’s arguments, see Douglas 1967; Lukes 1973.)

If Durkheim and the Durkheimian school dealt with mental illness only tangentially, another major school of sociological thought that was emerging in the early twentieth century, the Chicago School led by Park and Burgess frequently tackled the subject more directly.  In important ways, the sociologists trained at the University of Chicago were heirs to the social survey tradition that had emerged in late nineteenth century Britain.  Park, Burgess and their students treated the city as their laboratory, and set forth to document its structures and its pathologies (Park, Burgess and McKenzie 1925). Like their British predecessors, the Chicago sociologists employed both statistical techniques and ethnographic observation, both mapping the statistical distribution of social problems and providing detailed ethnographic studies of their place in specific neighborhoods in the city.  Psychoses were only one of a number of what they termed social pathologies that fell under their gaze – alongside homelessness, alcoholism, suicide, homicide, prostitution, juvenile delinquency, and crime.  Characteristically, the psychological disorganization that characterizes mental illness (and other forms of deviance) was linked to the social disorganization of particular communities – the prevalence of anonymous and transitory social relationships and the weakness of social ties, all associated with the breakdown of social controls.   (For discussions of the Chicago School, see Bulmer 1984; Faris 1967.)   The culmination of this perspective on the sociological study of mental illness came with the publication in 1939 of Faris and Dunham’s monograph on Mental Disorders in Urban Areas, a volume which, its title notwithstanding, focused primarily on Chicago See Faris and Dunham 1939; and for an attempt to generalize their findings to other cities, Schroeder 1942).  But in a broader sense, the fascination with deviance that the Chicago School exhibited, and the preoccupation of many of the sociologists it trained with ethnographic approaches to the study of social life can be traced in many of the works of post-war American sociology, not least many of the classic studies that emerged in the 1950s and 1960s devoted to the sociology of mental illness.

The Second World War and its aftermath marked a turning point for American social science, as for American universities more broadly.  The mobilization of society for total war broke down the barriers – legal and ideological- to the expansion of central state powers, as well as finally vanquishing the Great Depression. The upshot was a vast increase in the size and reach of the American federal government, a development that proved permanent and that has only accelerated in the years since.  In war’s shadow, there was little disposition to rein in the expanded scope of federal authority, and what resistance there was melted away with the outbreak of the Cold War in 1947.

Science, including social science, had played an enormous part in the war effort, and as the conflict drew to a close, efforts were made to rethink the role of science and society in the soon-to-be post-war world.  The most notable instance of this new thinking was Vannevar Baush’s extended memorandum to President Roosevelt, subsequently published as Science: The Endless Frontier (Bush 1945).  Written by the wartime director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, it presented a wide-ranging overview of the conditions of scientific research, its potential contributions to public welfare, the reconfigerations that would be necessary after the war, and the potential role of Washington, both in securing the training of scientific talent, and in the prosecution of scientific research.  Though its primary remit was the natural sciences and medicine, it ranged broadly over its chosen terrain, and in the Truman administration it would serve as the inspiration for the formation of the National Science Foundation, and the National Institutes of Health, both of which would transform the environment for research and the nature of the modern university.  The era of Big Science and the modern research university may be said to be its progeny.  Where before the war, federal involvement in scientific and medical research, let alone the social sciences, had been vanishingly small, from the late 1940s onwards, and particularly once the Cold War broke out, it started down the pathway of exponential growth that has continued ever since.  With burgeoning federal investment, the process of knowledge creation and major characteristics of the academic world were irrevocably altered.

Military conflict had an even more direct impact on the psychiatric sector.  Modern industrialized and mechanized warfare has repeatedly had drastic effects on the mental health of military personnel, and the Second World War, like the first, saw a massive number of psychiatric casualties spawned by the horrors of combat.  Many of these were permanently harmed, so that the military authorities faced the immediate emergency of coping with soldiers breaking down – the effects on fighting efficiency and morale – and the post-war problems posed by disabled veterans with grave and continuing psychiatric problems.  The exigencies of  wartime prompted a massive expansion in the number of medics deployed to deal with psychiatric emergencies, and a continuing expanded demand for psychiatrists after the war ended.  The knowledge that, under enormous stress, even the apparently psychiatrically healthy broke down in large numbers, and the heroic status of these psychiatric casualties, also helped change popular attitudes to mental illness, and encouraged the psychiatric profession to believe that many cases of mental illness could be treated outside the walls of the mental hospitals to which the mentally ill had been traditionally sent (Scull 2010).

The consequences of this situation were many.  Direct provision of mental health services remained a state rather than a federal responsibility, with the exception of a considerable increase in the number of veterans’ hospitals devoted to providing psychiatric services.  But both the Veterans’ Administration and the newly established National Institute of Mental Health were soon pouring funds into the training of mental health professionals, and NIMH also embarked on a program of basic research in the mental health sector.  Within psychiatry itself, a rapid shift occurred in the locus of psychiatric practice, as more and more professionals opted for the out-patient sector and the traditional mental hospitals were left with the dregs of the profession.  The number of psychiatrists rose rapidly, and for at least a quarter century, the most ambitious amongst them for the most part embraced some version of Freudian psychoanalysis.

NIMH adopted an extremely broad definition of what constituted research relevant to its mission of understanding mental illness and improving its treatment.  Indeed, the bulk of its research funding was directed to the social sciences, not to psychiatry, in part because psychoanalysts spurned the sort of research the agency was willing to fund, and in part because they were such unadept grantsmen.  Though the great bulk of the social science funding went in turn to the discipline of psychology, a not inconsiderable fraction of the federal moneys were captured by sociologists, and for the three decades after the Second World War, much of the flourishing state of the sociology of mental illness can be attributed to this flow of federal research dollars (Scull 2011a; 2011b).

Some of this work was conducted intramurally, at the Laboratory of Socio-Environmental Studies headed by the sociologist John Clausen (1956), and at the Biometry branch, where the collection of systematic statistical data and the development of epidemiological research were encouraged.  But much also took the form of NIMH training grants, and extramural research grants.  Substantively, much of the work in the 1950s built upon the intellectual foundations provided by the Chicago School, in its dual emphasis on quantitative and ethnographic techniques.  Large-scale studies of social class and mental illness, of mental illness and the family, and of popular conceptions of mental illness were undertaken, and in some instances stretched over several decades.  The centrality of the mental hospital in the mental health sector both pre- and postwar, and the relevance of sociological perspectives for the understanding of these complex organizations meant that these too became a focus of much funded research.

In the early 1950s, much of this research was collaborative in nature, linking together psychiatrists or other mental health professionals and sociologists in a common endeavor.  Notable examples include Stanton and Schwartz’s (1954) ethnography of the Chesnut Lodge private mental hospital, and the work by Hollingshead and Redlich (1958) and their team of researchers on social class and on family dynamics and mental illness (Myers and Roberts 1959; see also Leighton, Clausen and Wilson 1957; Rennie and Srole 1956; Greenblatt, Levinson and Williams (1957); Yarrow, Schwartz, Murphy and Deasy (1955)).  Soon, however, sociological work began to embrace a far more critical stance towards psychiatry and psychiatric institutions, a shift in intellectual perspective that emerged particularly strongly in studies of mental hospitals and of institutional psychiatry.

The altered intellectual stance was evident as early as 1956, with the appearance of Ivan Belknap’s study of a Texas mental hospital, with its conclusion that “mental hospitals are probably themselves obstacles in the development of an effective plan of treatment for the mentally ill” so that “in the long run the abandonment of the state hospitals might be once of the greatest humanitarian reforms and the greatest financial economy ever achieved” (Belknap 1956: xi, 212).  It is equally evident in such later works as Dunham and Weinberg (195 ) and  Perrucci (197 ), and perhaps achieved its apotheosis in Erving Goffman’s devastating portrait of  mental hospitals as “total institutions,” which was published in 1961 and became one of the more enduring works of mid-twentieth century American sociology (Goffman 1961).

Goffman was trained at Chicago, and his research for Asylums, undertaken while he was on staff at the NIHM Laboratory of Socio-Environmental Studies, included a year of fieldwork at St Elizabeth’s Mental Hospital in Washington, D.C.  But while in one sense rooted in the Chicago School tradition, Goffman’s work was in many ways Durkheimian in inspiration.  In contrast to the symbolic-interactionist emphasis on the fluidity of social interaction, Goffman’s is a portrait of structural determinism.  Mental hospitals resemble prisons and concentration camps, as well as monasteries, nunneries, and boarding schools.  Life in such places is a product  of their structural features, and their defects are not removable by any conceivable sets of reforms.  Instead, life in a mental hospital tends inexorably to damage, to dehumanize, and to destroy.  Psychiatrists are ridiculed as members of a “tinkering trade” who induce their subordinates to stage elaborate rituals designed to show that they preside over a medical establishment devoted to humane care and cure, when in reality, they are little better than prison guards helping to generate the very pathologies they claim to treat.  As he put it a decade later, mental hospitals were no more than “hopeless storage dumps trimmed in psychiatric paper.” As for the patient, he has been duped, suffering “dislocation from civil life, alienation from loved ones who arranged for the commitment, mortification due to hospital regimentation and surveillance, permanent post-hospital stigmatization.  This has not merely been a bad deal; it has been a grotesque one” (Goffman 1971: 390).

From the late nineteen-sixties through the nineteen-eighties, the intellectual distance and even hostility between sociologists and psychiatrists often seemed to be growing.  Within five years of the appearance of Asylums, the California sociologist Thomas Scheff had authored an in some ways still more radical assault on psychiatry, dismissing the medical model of mental illness and attempting to replace it with a societal reaction model, wherein mental patients were portrayed as victims – victims, most obviously, of psychiatrists (Scheff 1966).  Noting that despite centuries of effort, “there is no rigorous knowledge of the cause, cure, or even the symptoms of functional mental disorders”, he argued that we would be better off adopting “a [sociological] theory of mental disorder in which psychiatric symptoms are considered to be labeled violations of social norms, and stable ‘mental illness’ to be a social role.”  And “societal reaction [not internal pathology] is usually the most important determinant of entry into that role” (Scheff 1966: 7, 25, 28).

During the 1960s and 1970s, the societal reaction theory of deviance enjoyed a broad popularity and acceptance among many sociologists, and Scheff’s was one of the principal works in that tradition.  But besides attracting derision and hostility from psychiatrists (Roth 1973), where they deigned to notice his work at all, it came under increasing criticism from within sociology on both theoretical (Morgan 1975) and empirical (Gove 1970; Gove and Howell 1974) grounds.  In the face of an avalanche of well-founded objections, Scheff was eventually forced to back away from many of his more extreme positions, and by the time the third edition of his book appeared (Scheff 1999), most of its bolder ideas had been quietly abandoned.  Labeling and stigmatization of the mentally ill have remained important subjects for sociologists, even if few would now argue that they have the etiological significance once attributed to them.

Though the skeptical claims of the labeling theorists have now been sharply curtailed, much of the sociological work being done on mental illness has retained its critical edge.  Four major inter-related changes have occurred in the psychiatric sector in the past half century or so: the progessive abandonment of the prior commitment to segregative responses to serious mental illness, and the rundown of the state hospital sector; the collapse of psychoanalysis and its replacement by a renewed emphasis on the biological basis of mental illness; the psychopharmacological revolution; and the so-called neo-Kraepelinian revolution, the rise of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual to a position of overwhelming importance, not just to the practice of psychiatry in the United States, but to developments elsewhere in the world.  Sociologists have played a crucial role in analyzing the sources and the impact of  most of these changes, and sociological perspectives have spread and been highly influential among others attempting to make sense of these profoundly important developments.

Deinstitutionalization, for example, was initially presented as a grand reform, ironically just as the mental hospital had originally been (Rothman 1971; Scull 1979, 1993).  From the mid-nineteen-seventies, however, a more skeptical set of perspectives emerged.   Psychiatrists had assumed that the new generation of anti-psychotic drugs had been the main drivers of the expulsion of state hospital patients.  A series of studies demonstrated the fallacy of this claim (Scull 1976, 1977; Lerman 1982; Gronfein 1985a).  Others sought alternative explanations of the shift in social policy, and a series of studies began to suggest some of the defects of the new approach to the management of chronic mental illness (Kirk and Thierren 1975; Aviram, Syme and Cohen 1976; Windle and Scully 1976; Scull 1977, 1984; Rose 1979; Gronfein 1985b).  The hegemony of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) began to attract attention, with critics examining both the processes by which the successive editions had been produced, and the intended and unintended effects of its widespread use (Kirk and Kutchins 1992; Kutchins 1997; Horwitz and Wakefield 2007;  2012)  The sources and the impact of the psychopharmacological revolution drew increased interest, with attention paid to both the role of the pharmaceutical industry and changes in the intellectual orientation of the psychiatric profession (Healy 1997, 2002; Herzberg 2008).

All of this occurred in a context where much of the federal money which had once underwritten sociological work on mental illness had been sharply curtailed.  In the nineteen-sixties and seventies, NIMH continued to define its research mission broadly, and to fund an extensive array of psychological and sociological research.  Subjected to political pressures to direct funding towards the solution of social problems, the agency underwrote a broad array of studies on such topics as crime, drug and alcohol addiction, suicide, and even rape – all topics of some relevance to mental health issues, and all ensuring a continual flow of federal research money into the social sciences, but scarcely central concerns for those focused on psychiatric disorders.  During the 1980s, however, this pattern of research funding abruptly altered.  The Republican administration elected in 1982 ordered NIMH to redirect its funding priorities away from social-problem oriented research towards work more directly pertinent to the understanding of mental disorders (Kolb, Frazier, and Sivrotka 2000).  Simultaneously, the intellectual center of gravity within psychiatry was shifting decisively away from psychoanalysis and a bio-social model of mental disorder and towards a biologically reductionist view of mental illness.  The social, so far as most psychiatrists were concerned, went from being directly relevant to being at best marginal to their research.  Thus, political pressures to avoid controversial and sensitive work on the sociological dimensions of mental disorder was reinforced by the demands of psychiatry for an increased focus on neuroscience and psycho-pharmacological research.

Scholars working on the sociology of mental illness thus now confront a very different research environment than the one that prevailed a quarter century ago.  The range of intellectual and policy issues thrown up by the dramatic changes that have marked the mental health sector in the same period mean, however, that there is an abundance of challenging topics for the study of which sociological perspectives are indispensable.  The range and scope of this Encyclopedia is vivid testimony to the intellectual vitality of the field, and will, one hopes, make a useful contribution to the next generation of sociological research on the cultural sociology of mental illness.

* * * * *


  1. Aviram U, Syme S.I. and Cohen J.B. (1976)  “The Effects of Policies and Programs on the Reduction of Mental Hospitalization,” Social Science and Medicine 10: 571–577.
  2. Belknap, I. (1956) Human Problems of the State Mental Hospital New York: McGraw-Hill.
  3. Booth, Charles (1889) Life and Labour of the People in London 1st ed., Vol. 1  London: Macmillan.
  4. Booth, Charles (1891) Life and Labour of the People in London  1st ed., Vol. 2  London: Macmillan.
  5. Booth, C.  (1892-1897) Life and Labour of the People in London 2nd ed., 9 vols.  London: Macmillan.
  6. Bulmer, M. (1984) The Chicago School of Sociology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  7. Bush, V. (1945)  Science, the Endless Frontier; A Report to the President  Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.
  8. Clausen, J.A. (1956) Sociology and the Field of Mental Health. New York: Russell Sage.
  9. Douglas, J.D. (1967) The Social Meanings of Suicide. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  10. Dunham, H.W. and Weinberg, S.K. (1960) The Culture of the State Mental Hospital. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.
  11. Durkheim, D.E. (1895)  The Rules of Sociological Method. English translation, New York: Free Press, 1982.
  12. Durkheim, D.E. (1897) Suicide. English translation, New York: Free Press, 1997.
  13. Faris, R.E.L. (1967)  Chicago Sociology: 1920-1932. San Francisco: Chandler.
  14. Faris, R.E.L. and Dunham, H.W. (1939) Mental Disorders in Urban Areas: An Ecological Study of Schizophrenia and Other Psychoses. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  15. Goffman, E. (1961)  Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates. Garden City, New York: Doubleday.
  16. Goffman, E. (1971) “The Insanity of Place,” Psychiatry 32: 357-390.
  17. Gove, W.R.  (1970)  “Societal Reaction as an Explanation of Mental Illness: An Evaluation,” American Sociological Review 35:  873-884.
  18. Gove, W.R. and Howell, P. (1974) “Individual Resources and Mental Hospitalization: A Comparison and Evaluation of the Societal Reaction and Psychiatric Perspectives,” American Sociological Review 39: 86-100.
  19. Greenblatt, M., Levinson, D.J. and Williams, R.H. (1957) The Patient and the Mental Hospital.  New York: Free Press.
  20. Gronfein, W. (1985a) “Psychotropic Drugs and the Origins of Deinstitutionalization,” Social Problems 32: 437–453.
  21. Gronfein, W. (1985b) “Incentives and Intentions in Mental Health Policy: A Comparison of the Medicaid and Community Mental Health Programs,” Journal of Health and Social Behavior 26: 192-206.
  22. Healy D (1997)  The Antidepressant Era. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  23. Healy D (2002) The Creation of Psychopharmacology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  24. Herzberg, D.  (2008) Happy Pills in America: From Miltown to Prozac  Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
  25. Hollingshead, A.B. and Redlich, F. (1958) Social Class and Mental Illness: A Community Study. New York: Wiley.
  26. Horwitz, A.V.  (2003) Creating Mental Illness. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  27. Horwitz, A.V. and Wakefield, J.C.  (2007) The Loss of Sadness: How Psychiatry Transformed Normal Sorrow into Depressive Disorder. New York: Oxford University Press.
  28. Horwitz, A.V. and Wakefield, J.C. (2012) All We Have to Fear: Psychiatry’s Transformation of Natural Anxieties into Mental Disorders. New York: Oxford University Press.
  29. Kirk S.A. and Kutchins H. (1992) The Selling of DSM: The Rhetoric of Science in Psychiatry. New York: de Gruyter.
  30. Kirk, S.A. and Thierren, M. (1975)  “Community Mental Health Myths and the Fate of Formerly Hospitalized Patients,” Psychiatry 38: 209-217.
  31. Kolb, LC, Frazier, S.H., and Sirovatka P. (2000) “The National Institute of Mental Health: Its Influence on Psychiatry and the Nation’s Mental Health,” in  R.C. Menninger and J.C. Nemiah (eds.) American Psychiatry After the War  Washington, D.C., American Psychiatric Press: 207–231.
  32. Kutchins, H. (1997) Making Us Crazy: DSM: The Psychiatric Bible and the Creation of Mental Disorders. New York: Free Press.
  33. Leighton, A.H., Clausen, J.A.,and Wilson, R.N. (eds.)  (1957)  Explorations in Social Psychiatry. New York: Basic, 1957.
  34. Lerman, P. (1982) Deinstitutionalization and the Welfare State. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
  35. Lukes, S.M. (1973) Emile Durkheim: His Life and Work: A Historical and Critical Study. London: Allen Lane.
  36. MacDonald, M. (1981) Mystical Bedlam: Madness, Anxiety, and Healing in Seventeenth Century England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981.
  37. Morgan, D. (1975) “Explaining Mental Illness,” European Journal of Sociology 16: 262-280
  38. Myers, J.K. and Roberts, B.H. (1959) Family and Class Dynamics in Mental Illness. New York: Wiley.
  39. Park, R.E., Burgess, E. and McKenzie, R. (1925) The City Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  40. Perrucci, R. (1974) Circle of Madness: On Being Insane and Institutionalized in America. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.
  41. Rennie, T.A. and Srole, L. (1956)  “Social Class Prevalence and Distribution of Psychosomatic Conditions in an Urban Population,” Psychosomatic Medicine 18: 449-456.
  42. Rose, S. (1979) “Deciphering Deinstitutionalization: Complexities in Policy and Analysis,” Milbank Memorial Fund Quarterly 57: 429-460.
  43. Roth, M. (1973) “Psychiatry and Its Critics,” British Journal of Psychiatry 122: 374-402
  44. Rothman, D.  (1971) The Discovery of the Asylum: Social Order and Disorder.  New Republic. Boston: Little, Brown.
  45. Rowntree, J.S. (1901)  Poverty: A Study of Town Life
  46. Scheff, T. (1966) Being Mentally Ill: A Sociological Theory. Chicago: Aldine.
  47. Scheff, T. (1999) Being Mentally Ill: A Sociological Theory 3rd ed.  New York: Aldine De Gruyter.
  48. Schroeder, C.W. (1942) Mental Disorders in Cities. American Journal of Sociology 48: 40-47.
  49. Scull, A.  (1976)  “The Decarceration of the Mentally Ill: A Critical View,” Politics and Society 6: 173-211.
  50. Scull, A. (1977) Decarceration: Community Treatment and the Deviant  Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall.
  51. Scull, A. (1979) Museums of Madness: The Social Organization of Insanity in Nineteenth-Century England. London: Allen Lane.
  52. Scull, A.  (1984)  Decarceration: Community Treatment and the Deviant. 2nd ed.  Cambridge: Polity Press.
  53. Scull, A.  (1993)  The Most Solitary of Afflictions: Madness and Society in Britain, 1700-1900  London and New Haven: Yale University Press.
  54. Scull, A. (2010) “Psychiatry and the Social Sciences, 1940-2009,” in R.E. Backhouse and P. Fontaine, The Unsocial Science? Economics and Neighboring Disciplines Since 1945 History of Political Economy 42: 25-52.
  55. Scull, A.  (2011a  “The Mental Health Sector and the Social Sciences in Post-World War II USA.  Part I  Total War and its Aftermath,” History of Psychiatry 22: 3-19.
  56. Scull, A. (2011b)  “The Mental Health Sector and the Social Sciences in Post-World War II USA.  Part II The Impact of Federal Research Funding and the Drugs Revolution,” History of Psychiatry 22: 403-415.
  57. Stanton, A. and Schwarz, M. (1954) The Mental Hospital: A Study of Institutional Participation in Mental Illness and Health. New York: Basic Books.
  58. Windle C. and Scully D. (1976)  “Community Mental Health Centers and Decreasing Use of State Mental Hospitals,” Community Mental Health Journal 12: 239–243.
  59. Yarrow, M.R., Radke, M., Schwartz, C.G., Murphy, H.S., and Calhoun, L. (1955)  “The Psychological Meaning of Mental Illness in the Family,” Journal of Social Issues 11, #4: 12-24.


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  1. Any discussion of mental illness before the discovery of the four blood types and syphilis, is like discussing the flavor of the cheese that is in the moon.

    blood typesý

    syphilis “The causative organism, Treponema pallidum, was first identified by Fritz Schaudinn and Erich Hoffmann in 1905. The first effective treatment (Salvarsan) was developed in 1910 by Paul Ehrlich, which was followed by trials of penicillin and confirmation of its effectiveness in 1943.

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  2. Accepting, then, that there is such a thing as mental illness

    Thanks for the warning that there’s no good reason to continue reading.

    At this point in time, however learned one may be, or however many grains of truth one may hold, any serious article on psychiatry which does not dispel the myth of “mental illness” as anachronistic and absurd can only be regarded as academic drivel.

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  3. “mental hospitals as total institutions, engines of degradation and destruction that falsely put on a medical gloss”

    Goffman got it right.

    Yes, there are people who do horrible things. Some of them have medical school diplomas hung up on their walls. And some of them are the designated patients.

    But someone who had been treated with dignity and respect and been allowed to develop and apply their abilities in a legitimate way is not going to be doing horrible things.

    So people do show behaviors which we are calling mental illness. But this does not mean that there ever is such a thing as mental illness.

    What people need is NEVER Recovery, Psychotherapy, or Psychiatry, and we muxt organize to fight against these things. What people need is Restorative Justice, the life that should be given to everyone as an entitlement.

    And as always, thank you Old Head.


    Disability Labels

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  4. It was bad enough that you blasted two of my heroes as a survivor of psychiatric treatment, Thomas Szasz and Michael Foucault, at the beginning of your recent book. While I understand in the case of Szasz, with Foucault I think it was due to a misreading of his work. Then, to add insult to injury, as a form of social satire I imagine, you practically incorporate the title of the English translation of his book into the title of your own. Foucault was not even dealt with in a serious fashion, he was dismissed. It would seem that you stand in a different relationship to psychiatry than you do to philosophy.

    I was curious to get your take on Erving Goffman after hearing that you, the sociology professor who specializes in the history of psychiatry, early on found fault in Thomas Schell’s labeling theory. I still see him, Goffman, as taking a much more strictly sociological approach to his subject than yourself. You refer to “psychoanalysis and a bio-social model” shifting towards a biologically reductive approach in the 80s. “Bio-social” gives much more to biology than I would without concrete evidence. This siding with psychiatry I find somewhat disturbing. I think before we say anything is biological psychological sociological, etc., evidence needs to be gathered. Neuroscientists at one time used to be looking for abnormalities in the brains of mad people that they just weren’t finding. The difference between now and then is that now you’ve got psychiatric drugs to create abnormalities such as are not found in nature.

    Psychiatry occupies this awkward place somewhere between medicine and police science. Officials want to beef up the mental health system because they see doing so, erroneously, as violent crime prevention. The error, in fact, could be conscious as mental patients are the scapegoats for so much that is wrong with society today, and a scapegoat is a red herring of sorts. We are not tackling the real problem, but we are appearing to do something about the problem, and so everybody who matters (not the scapegoats, of course) should be happy about the situation. (We know how the NAZI’s dealt with their scapegoats.) I just think the profession a little closer here to police science, and further from anything resembling medicine, than apparently you do.

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      • I read the Nancy Andreasen NY Times interview when it first came out, and it is still disturbing.

        She recognizes the drugs are damaging, but her solution is to look for another target in the brain for drug action.

        “My biggest fear is that people who need the drugs will stop taking them.”

        The only people who “need” drugs are addicts, and chucking pills isn’t the worst thing that could happen to them.

        Most psychiatrists, as illustrated by Andreasen, have a hard time conceiving treatment that doesn’t involve,in some capacity, a chemical fix. Treatment without drugs is still a long way from their radar, or, MRI screens.

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  5. Trouble defining what is ‘mental illness’ for sociological study? I have the same problem defining what is torture given that the techniques used at Gitmo are seen as “accepted practice” in the locked wards of our hospitals these days. Responsible, humane, legal, and proper to use coercive interrogation techniques, where suicide attempts to escape the techniques (coz it’s not torture right?) is seen as manipulation of self in duress behaviour, and is a reflection of our social and cultural values of liberty, democracy, the rule of law, and humanity?

    So I would say torture …. “is the most solitary of afflictions to the people who experience it; but it is the most social of maladies to those who observe its effects”.

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  6. Wow what a terrible article!

    As oldhead said, “Accepting, then, that there is such a thing as mental illness…”

    Um, no…

    Problems in living; i.e. human distress caused by unsatisfactory interaction between the individual and their environment which is expressed in brain chemistry, are not discrete illnesses…. how hard is it to understand that, Scull?

    It’s probably a waste of time to even write this comment. This dude will probably just deny to himself that there is any problem and keep on writing as if he is an authority on this area…

    I too read about half this article and then gave up. It’s so pedantic, distant, ascetic, and frankly boring that it’s not worth the metaphorical paper it’s printed on. Even cheap internet paper…

    Most of the points in the paper focus on white, male, rich people and their “expert” view of the problems in living of their fellow human beings. This shit really gets old.

    It’s time to stop putting these people on a pedestal, because frankly people are tired of these “experts” and their inane views on imagined “mental illnesses.”

    We want to hear more from people with lived experience of severe distress (not the same thing as saying someone “has a mental illness”), and more about individuals, not more from “experts” who don’t understand or articulate the subjective experience of the people they are talking about (of whom the author of this article seems like a good example).

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    • Looks like we’re on the same wavelength. What’s the point of wading through such verbiage any more thoroughly than one would explore and debate the details of an analysis which held problems in living to be the result of witchcraft or sin? Articles which dismiss challenges to the existence of “mental illness” as irrelevant should be given the same short shrift, no matter how “esteemed” the author may be.

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  7. Maybe you are unable to understand that constant sadness or anger is a sickness?

    Why don’t you cite the numerous studies where constant stress, sadness, and anger lead to physical illness?

    They need the label of mental illness to have a good reason to help the victims of society with the medical community, since the victims of society are not being helped by you people, who are professional complainers.

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      • Thank you for clearly stating an important point; constant sadness and anger are natural reactions to constantly distressful experiences. Our culture believes that a person must be “mentally ill” to suffer emotionally; consistently, the DSM permits only two weeks to mourn the death of a spouse or child.

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    • liberal

      And here you are again. Psychiatrists are not real doctors and mental illness as the system conceives of it is not a reality. As Bonnie stated so well, sadness and stress and anger are not illnesses. Where do you come up with this stuff? Why are you so invested in protecting the status quo? It’s like you’re trying to protect the guild interests of psychiatry at all costs.

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      • Why do people engage him when it’s clear he’s just trying to derail the discussion? It takes two to tango. Meanwhile the discussion suffers and the author is disrespected. (Not that Mr. Scull is a favorite here either, but the critical comments being made are in the spirit of discourse, not simply trash-talking.)

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    • Many people here provide a lot of social support to family members and friends with very serious problems. What are you doing to help others?

      People don’t need a label of mental illness to be understood and helped.

      Of course constant sadness or anger is not an illness. It is a subjective experience that has a foundation in the past experiences between a person and their environment. While emotionally distressing experiences can lead to or increase the chances of physical illnesses, those experiences are not in themselves physical diseases.

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      • All of you people are insufferable, there are many people outside of your families who are sad and angry and who need help.

        All your complaining about the medical community helping millions of people who have no families or friends, is selfish at best.

        Once again don’t criticize the only system in place that is helping people who are too sad or angry to be civilized persons in a society, and work to constructively criticize it to address your grievances.

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    • Mental health affects physical health but that does not mean that mental health is a medical issue rather than a social welfare issue. Labeling emotional sufferers as “mentally ill” to promote social services is counter-productive; it is harmful to treat a social welfare problem like a medical problem. Neuroleptic drugs may temporarily reduce symptoms of emotional suffering but long-term drug use causes fatigue and a reduction of mental acuity necessary for solving real life problems (not to mention harmful side-effects).

      Consistently, kids in foster care typically have social welfare problems that need to be addressed; giving them drugs to mask the symptoms is wrong. Labeling social welfare problems as a medical problem- a “mental illness” is THE problem.

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  8. Today’s psychiatric industry has been given too much power, and as we all know absolute power corrupts absolutely. And absolute corruption is where today’s psychiatric industry is. It is in a similar position to that of the psychiatric industry in pre-WWII Germany. Although, according to the medical evidence, today’s psychiatrists are stigmatizing, torturing, and murdering en mass primarily child abuse victims, rather than Jews or gypsies.

    And today’s DSM is a book which classifies the iatrogenic illnesses created with the psychiatric drugs, but these iatrogenic illnesses are wrongly theorized and claimed to be genetic illnesses by today’s psychiatrists. Robert Whitaker, in his book ‘Anatomy’ points out that the ADHD drugs and antidepressants can create the symptoms of “bipolar.”

    And today’s “bipolar” drug cocktail treatment recommendations:

    Are a recipe for how to create the positive symptoms of “schizophrenia,” via what’s known as anticholinergic toxidrome.

    These are the central symptoms of anticholinergic toxidrome from

    “Central symptoms may include memory loss, disorientation, incoherence, hallucinations, psychosis, delirium, hyperactivity, twitching or jerking movements, stereotypy, and seizures.” The only difference between the central symptoms of anticholinergic toxidrome and and positive symptoms of “schizophrenia” is “hyperactivity” vs. “inactivity.” And since anticholinergic toxidrome is not listed as a billable DSM disorder, it is always misdiagnosed as one of the billable DSM disorders.

    And today’s “bipolar” drug treatments can also create the negative symptoms of “schizophrenia” via what’s known as neuroleptic induced deficit syndrome.

    Today’s psychiatric industry is nothing more than one giant iatrogenic illness creation system, primarily targeting child abuse victims. The primary actual function within society of today’s psychiatric industry is to defame, torture, and murder millions to cover up the “zipper troubles” and easily recognized iatrogenesis of the two original educated professions. This is known as “the dirty little secret of the two original educated professions.”

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  9. Most people, seeing someone sad or angry, and especially if the person is poor or homeless, say that that person has mental illness.

    I use a much simpler explanation. If they are sad or angry, then it is for good reason.

    So the proper response to this is Restorative Justice. And this is not obtained by psychotherapists or social workers. It is obtained with Attorneys and Political Activists.


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    • I had not read the Goffman piece previously, and I’d also like to thank you for mentioning it, and also for including a link in the reference note.

      In it Goffman makes a sharp distinction between medical symptoms and mental symptoms from which he would also distinguish mere social deviance. He also refers to the havoc caused by people not keeping sense of place in the social sense.

      I’d call it definitely a worthwhile read if any others are interested in going there.

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  10. In light of Bonnie’s comment above I decided to read the article all the way through. As a result I want to backtrack just a little from my original scathing dismissal of Mr. Scull’s article.

    I still consider Scull’s work to be seriously flawed by his failure to dismiss the legitimacy of the “mental illness” concept from the start, and the equivocal position he takes on this throughout . However, in terms of examining the social and political trends surrounding the “evolution” of the psychiatric industry there is some valuable information and analysis here, and I wouldn’t want to discourage people from reading the article based solely on such a rhetorical faux pas. But I wish Scull would appreciate the vital significance of this issue.

    This sort of problem could be solved if authors would be disciplined and more respectful of the MIA survivor audience by ALWAYS putting quotes around such offensive terms.

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    • P.S.

      Labeling and stigmatization of the mentally ill have remained important subjects for sociologists

      There is a cluelessness surrounding such circular logic. Once people have been labeled “mentally ill” they are stigmatized by definition; you can’t keep the label and get rid of the “stigma.” A sociological “subject” as presented above is contaminated from the start by the assumption that there is a genuine category of “mentally ill” people, as opposed to a category of people falsely labeled as such. Anyone who dismisses this as “semantics” totally misses the point.

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