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Chapter: Sociology of Health : Sociology of Health

Sociological Perspective on Health

Sociology assumes that a functioning society depends upon healthy people and upon controlling illness.

Sociological Perspective on Health


Sociology assumes that a functioning society depends upon healthy people and upon controlling illness. Although many believe that science alone determines illness, the sociological view points out that society determines sickness as well. For example, the culture defines diseases as legitimate if they have a clear “scientific” or laboratory diagnosis, such as cancer or heart disease. In the past, society considered conditions such as chemical dependency, whether drug or alcoholbased, as character weaknesses, and denied those who suffered from addiction the sick role. Today, drug rehabilitation programs and the broader culture generally recognize addictions as a disease, even though the term “disease” is medically contested. In today's culture, addicts may take on the sick role as long as they seek help and make progress toward getting out of the sick role.


In the past, society first dismissed or judged various ailments, only to later recognize the ailments as legitimate. People now recognize premenstrual syndrome (PMS)—once considered female hypochondria—as a legitimate, treatable hormonal condition. Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome, or AIDS, first emerged in the early 1980s in the male homosexual community. Because of the disease's early association with a lifestyle many people considered immoral, society granted those who acquired the disease little to no sympathy and denied them the sick role. People punished these victims for violating the norms and values of the society, rather than recognizing them as legitimately ill. As society became more knowledgeable about the disease, and as the disease affected a broader portion of the population, attitudes toward AIDS and those afflicted changed as well.


Today some conditions still struggle for recognition as legitimate ailments. One controversial condition is chronic fatigue syndrome. Called the “yuppie flu,” chronic fatigue syndrome generally affects

middleclass women, though men have also been diagnosed with it. Flulike symptoms, including lowgrade fever, sore throat, extreme fatigue, and emotional malaise, characterize the condition, which is often accompanied by depression. These symptoms may last for years and often result in disability. Sufferers experience difficulty in getting their condition recognized, not only by family and friends, but by insurance companies as well. Because of social hesitancy to accept chronic fatigue syndrome as legitimate, sufferers who are unable to work are often denied disability. Advocates have responded by renaming the disorder chronic fatigue immunedeficiency syndrome. This renaming associates the disorder with more scientific, readily recognized diseases. More families, physicians, and employers are now taking the disease seriously, so chronic fatigue sufferers are gaining support.


People with mental illnesses equally struggle for recognition and understanding. Although treatment conditions and understanding of mental illness have drastically improved, critics and mental health providers argue that considerable work remains. Prior to the 1960s, most mentally ill patients were locked away in places referred to as “insane asylums,” in which patients were often sedated for easy control. Because of new drugs that reduce or eliminate many symptoms and changed attitudes toward mental illness brought about by the work of sociologists and psychologists, many asylums closed and thousands of patients were released to community group homes, halfway houses, or independent living. This movement toward community care produced mixed results, with most mental health professionals concluding that the majority of deinstitutionalized patients adapt well with appropriate community placement and followup. Critics point to an increase in homelessness coinciding with deinstitutionalization. They claim many homeless are mentally ill patients who need institutionalization or at least better mental health care.


Communities now face a number of issues due to deinstitutionalization because many localities object to group homes and halfway houses being located in their communities. Many wrongly believe that the mentally ill are more likely to commit crimes. Because of this misperception, as well as others, recovered mentally ill people, as well as those diagnosed and in treatment, are still stigmatized and discriminated against. In addition, turf wars can exist among mentalhealth professionals and over the use of drugs to control problematic behaviors. Psychiatrists and other medical doctors can prescribe drugs, while nonmedical professionals cannot. Insurance companies limit the kind of professional mentally ill patients may see and the length and cost of treatment. All these issues make it more difficult for mentally ill patients to get and remain in treatment.


Some mental illnesses, such as paranoid schizophrenia, require drug treatment for normal functioning. Patients in the community sometimes neglect to take their medication when they start feeling better, opting out of continued treatment and resulting in a relapse. Patients who stop taking their medications are the ones most likely to become homeless or to pose a danger to themselves or others. These are not the majority of patients being treated for a mental illness, however. People with conditions such as depression, panic, bipolar disorder (formerly known as manic depression), and a host of other debilitating conditions can respond well to other therapies in addition to medication. With treatment, they are no different from any other member of society. With increased awareness of mental and

emotional disorders, finding costeffective ways to meet society's need to appropriately care for these patients and benefit from their many talents will become more critical.


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