Sex, Lives and Red Tape

Mental illness as a form of deviance

I recently decided to spruce up my blog and biography. Having thought long and hard about how to summarise my professional interests, I settled upon the following statement:

Caroline has many professional interests including health promotion (especially in areas considered ‘deviant’, such as mental and sexual health) and sustainable development.

This post aims to provide a short overview explaining why I regard mental health to be a form of deviance.

What is deviance?

‘Deviance’ can be defined as any action, thought or feeling which goes against or defies social norms.

Social norms refer to the unwritten rules of society. Alternatively, it could refer to a group of men called Norm having a little get together.

Many people tend to associate the word deviance with crime and punishment. And although crime is a type of deviance, there are many more (often more subtle) forms of deviance. Here are some examples of deviance off the top of my head:

  • A husband and wife using the wife’s surname as their married name
  • Going to the supermarket in your pyjamas
  • Someone talking on their mobile phone in a library
  • Trying to haggle for a better price for your shopping in a UK supermarket
  • Homosexuality in Russia

What is considered to be deviant is relative and varies by time, place and person (which makes it very interesting to study). For example homosexuality was illegal in the UK until 1967, considered to be a mental illness until 1973 and only in 2014 were same-sex couples allowed to legally marry. This highlights the transient nature of deviance, which is a social construct not a fixed entity.

Pertinent to this blogpost, it has also been argued that illness is a form of deviance in that it violates the ‘norm’ to be in good health.

In many societies mental illness is regarded as a form of deviance.

Mental illness can be viewed as violating the ‘norm’ of having sound mental health. It is regarded as something in need of intervention with the aim to reduce/eliminate the deviance and resume the norm. Evidence of this includes the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders which details and categorises different illnesses, and the Mental Health Act which can detain people with mental illness against their will.

Secondly, the experiences of stigma and discrimination by those with mental illness (check out the Time To Change website for plenty of examples) highlight the social and cultural consequences of mental illness being regarded by society as deviant. However more and more there are positive sanctions which challenge the notion of mental illness as deviance. For example the Equality Act 2010 and the ‘parity of esteem’ movement.

Does it matter?

dev3I think it matters a great deal.

As I’ve reported previously mental health stigma is still alive and well; affecting how people with experiences of mental illness live their lives, and how others perceive them. A better understanding of how deviance operates and affects others can help question the status quo, understand and address barriers which people with mental illness continue to face.

Where can I find out more?

Scambler (2008) Sociology as applied to medicine

Spark Notes on “Deviance” available online

Prezi tutorial: “A whistlestop tour of medical sociology” which briefly covers the concepts of deviance, stigma and other terms important to public health

uneOpen – Deviance – Mental Health Lecture Video


2 comments on “Mental illness as a form of deviance

  1. blahpolar
    September 1, 2014

    Oh boy. More othering.

  2. carotomes
    September 2, 2014

    Fair point. Deviance as a concept does split the world into ‘normal’ vs ‘other’, and that isn’t always a helpful division.

    However when a group is viewed by society as ‘other’ (even if personally I do not think this should be the case) it is useful to consider why they are the ‘other’ in order to address the division.

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This entry was posted on September 1, 2014 by in Mental Health, Stigma and tagged , , , , .