Social Question

wundayatta's avatar

Do social norms cause mental illness?

Asked by wundayatta (58367 points ) December 13th, 2012

On the question about fatness, the discussion came around to an article that said that we have a natural body weight, and we can’t get away from it unless we have a starvation diet that would be diagnosed as anorexia in a thin person. There was at least one example of this provided by a jelly.

It made me wonder if this is a pattern. Is mental illness caused when we have social norms that some people can not conform to? Could society be more tolerant, and if they were, would a lot of mental illness disappear, just as if we were more tolerant of people being overweight, the social pressure to be thin might disappear? If we did this, would we be able to get rid of a lot of mental illness, simply because more people would feel like they belonged?

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16 Answers

KNOWITALL's avatar

I honestly don’t think so, W. Only because of my experience with many forms of mental illness.

As far as being too thin or too fat, I do think it would help those people if our social norms were exposed as ignorant which to me they are. A lady who died from anorexia may not have been anorexic if it wasn’t for the ‘social norms’...whether she was teased or it was in her head only, who knows.

Society could definately be more tolerant. I don’t know how many times I’ve been around the mentally ill where my mom works and volunteers and people don’t understand why they are ratty looking or poor, or homeless. People ridicule what they can’t understand, imo out of fear of the unknown. Just another example of people’s ignorance about mental illness. sad

burntbonez's avatar

I have often wondered if deviant behavior is necessarily deviant. How much deviance can we tolerate without running into problems? If a schizophrenic runs down the street naked, is their nudity a problem? Really? If they are shouting threats like, “I’ll kill you,” at people they pass, is that a problem? Really? If all they are doing is shouting threats?

Can the police tell the different between a naked person saying they’ll kill people who is just saying that, and a person who actually could be a danger to others? Is it best just to be safe and pick them up and take them to the mental hospital? At the mental hospital will they be medicated and then their thinking will be fuzzy and, well, what were they thinking when they stripped naked in public?

I think there is a difference between behaviors that make us uncomfortable and behaviors that seriously threaten us. I think a lot of the time, we mistake things that make us uncomfortable for threatening things and in the process, we may start to criminalize deviance.

I do think that social norms often become the reason why a person is considered mentally ill. They break the norm, and that makes us uncomfortable and there must be something wrong with them. Thus, that becomes the definition of mental illness.

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

I think in many cases, of course. Psychosomatic mental illness is always because of society. Even (let’s pretend) strictly biochemical illness is societal.

wildpotato's avatar

I think yes, sometimes. And I think that in nearly every case of mental illness, social norms can multiply and ossify symptoms. I have a question, though – are we counting the baby-parent(s) interaction as a societal one? My answer will change a lot depending on that.

@Simone_De_Beauvoir If you have time, I’m interested in hearing more about your ideas on psychosomatosis. The view you outline is unfamiliar to me, and as I’m writing a paper on this right now, more standpoints are very helpful. The analyst I’ve studied the most on this question, Joyce McDougall, thinks that psychosomatosis is caused by parental overinvestment in their child’s body, and that psychosomatic symptoms are something like neurotic symptoms: expressions of repressed anxiety (or of split-off and projected bits of the ego, if we want to use Kleinian terms) that are now manifesting in problematic ways – in this case physical ways rather than mental.

Shippy's avatar

I think so, as mental illness is often culturally bound as well. What some cultures decide are abnormal are acceptable in others. But then again some are organic in nature.

wundayatta's avatar

@wildpotato I believe social norms apply to baby-parent interaction, if that helps.

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

@wildpotato I am not coming to this from a psychoanalytical or psychiatric paradigm. I am using a sociological paradigm and, generally speaking, we reject that so much of the individual has to do with infant/toddler/child experiences with parents on a subconscious level. While there may be subconscious processes, I believe people’s problems, ideas, experiences are not very individualistic, they’re socially patterned. Every person in each social position and context believes they make their own decisions and in some ways they do, but they’re literally deciding the way others in their particular social location are deciding. And that changes with each context. The other reason I hate psych is that it labels and it makes everything into disorders and conditions. It makes feeling crazed around gender a problem but, while gender is a problem in general, the person feeling crazed about it is not sick, in the traditional sense. Anyway, psych has contributed (not that sociology is blameless, it’s not) to so much wrong in society. And we depend on it so much for making distinctions between us who are ‘normal’ and those who are ‘crazy.’

Anyway to go back to your question, I do not at all like any of Kleinian work. Literally, she distrusts Freud for certain reasons and then does the same thing – she claims the hunger of the infant is fundamentally part of a person’s sexuality. WTF? How do you even know that or can state that, definitively? Infants do not inform us what their hungers have to do with their sexuality but she has no problem informing us that this is what is integral for sexuality. I’d say she has serious audacity to do that but all psych (and yes, a lot of soc) is like that.

Oh, short answer: what @wundayatta said

JenniferP's avatar

I think that mental illness is caused by different factors, some physical, some environmental.

YARNLADY's avatar

No, there have always been people who brain chemistry is out of whack, and that causes them to have difficulty trying to provide basic needs for themselves. The labeling of mental illnesses is a method that doctors have developed to help determine the best way to treat their patients.

These labels are confusing to the general public, as they somehow lead people to believe that the label defines the person rather giving a tool to assist in their treatment.

burntbonez's avatar

It seems to me that the determination that “brain chemistry is out of whack,” while it is made by doctors, is largely a social determination. That is, doctors are asked to put their imprimatur on that which society in general finds to be discomfiting.

YARNLADY's avatar

@burntbonez To a certain extent, you are correct. In some societies, stoning your daughter for looking at a boy would be considered normal, while in others it would be considered crazy. The incidence of so-called mental illness in the U. S. has gotten out of control.

However, there are universal conditions that render people unable to provide basic needs for themselves, and they are recognized at not normal in all cultures. The people are not always labeled as mentally ill, but sometimes thought to be religious extremists and are cared for by their neighbors.

rooeytoo's avatar

Depends on how you define “mental illness.” I don’t think schizophrenia is caused by society, but there are a lot of people who feel “odd” or out of place because they don’t conform to societies rules and regs on how a “normal” person feels and acts.

rojo's avatar

When younger I used to hang around with a bunch of cavers and as a group they were extremely tolerant of what society would call aberrant behavior. Not that there were not rules but mainly, it was a kind of anything goes as long as no one gets hurt. I think many people stayed involved in the activity because of this acceptance.

Hawaii_Jake's avatar

I believe the short answer to the title of the OP is no.

The details of the OP then go on to discuss social norms, and there the difficulty arises. From personal experience, I can state there is a difference between a mental illness and social deviancy.

I have a mental illness. I was diagnosed bipolar type 1 eleven years ago. I experienced the horrifying symptoms necessary for a good psychiatrist to make a qualitative diagnosis. I think that @YARNLADY stated it well, saying some people have problems with there brain chemistry that renders them incapable of providing at some level for their basic needs.

I understand that analysis. While I may write well, there are some things that I cannot cope with on a rudimentary level. I won’t go into those things here.

augustlan's avatar

Maybe. I don’t know that they caused my mental illnesses (depression/severe anxiety), but they certainly exacerbated them. I would guess that, like many things, it’s a case of nature (brain chemistry) and nurture (social norms).

Paradox25's avatar

Yes I do, in the sense that many people who do think and live differently could be labeled as being ‘nuts’. Over time the way social deviants are treated by the status quo element could, and in my opinion commonly does, have such a negative impact on such persons that they really could end up with some type of mental illness.

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