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Is Madness An Individual Attribute Or A Process Of Social Construction?

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Introduction

Is Madness An Individual Attribute Or A Process Of Social Construction? Madness is a largely contentious issue for a variety of reasons, comprising of operational discrepancies and its implications for wider society. In a very rudimentary sense madness implies a state of insanity beyond the control or will of the person considered to be mad. This however presupposes the existence of madness as tangible or concrete phenomena and dismisses the possibility that 'madness' may simply be the product or expression of alternate truths or different expressions of reality. In other words one may question whether the behaviour of the individual is abnormal enough to be located outside the realm of normal human functioning and whether the reason behind this is truly 'madness'? These questions are ultimately philosophical and ultimately unanswerable. But asking such questions does not entirely unrewarding, since it is our societal understand which informs our treatment of the mad. Principal to this essay is an understanding of social representations of madness, which comprise of notions what is assumed to be normal within a society, wherein lies the danger of relegating the experiences of the mentally ill as abnormal and something to be rejected. Subsequently, in order to establish whether madness is an individual attribute or social construction, it is important to try to analyse the various differences in representations/ allocations of madness across time and across different perspectives. This essay will provide an insight into the problematic nature of madness, by assessing the contribution of psychiatrists and psychologists, against the criticisms and allegations of 'de-humanization' made against them by social constructionists such as Foucault and Goffman, in order to locate the origins of madness. Moscovici originally developed the 'social representations' theory to provide an understanding of the fluid processes through which historically and culturally specific beliefs, knowledge and practices develop and circulate. It describes how through conversation, practices and the media we as individuals and communities make sense of the world.

Middle

It has been suggested that the clinical asylum/ institutionalisation is the birthplace of insanity as we understand it today, however it seems that this argument is far too simplistic and at times fatalistic, in that there are no distinctions made between types of madness, the active role of the 'patient' is not really considered and neither is there an appreciation of the possibilities in variation in psychiatric treatment which can offered. As a result this theory falls into the same trap of the stereotyped social representation of mental illness. This highlights an important consideration for the entirety of the essay, in that all researchers carry with them into their own work social representations of madness. Furthermore, all theorists appear to present a kind of causal relationship between merely 'odd' behaviour which may transgress beyond social norms, and the illegitimate labelling and subsequent treatment offered by psychiatrists at the expense of truly assessing some of the undeniable achievements psychiatrists have accomplished. Indeed there have been many disease in the past, like epilepsy, where it was unknown what caused them, however by arguing that all mental illnesses are social constructs, one is limiting the explanatory confines behind such behaviour. Moreover, there is considerable evidence, which suggests that organic diseases can affect cognition and mental diseases can affect bodily functioning. Furthermore, it seems that the premise of the critique readily condemns the role of psychiatrists in treating 'odd' behaviour without in certain circumstances the permission of the 'labelled' patient, and as a result infringing upon one's civil liberty. However if psychiatry were only to operate entirely voluntary places, this would give birth to a number of ethical considerations. For instance, in sensitive matters whereby the 'patient's sense of reality may be impaired, is it justifiable to intervene at the gain of saving one's life? Social constructionists may argue that there is no real identifiable 'mental illness' however if the patient is somehow driven to drastic measures, surely one must recognize that there is a problem, which needs to be addressed.

Conclusion

This point is further validated by the fact that the DSMMD documented 106 mental illnesses in 1980 and this increased rapidly to 300 in 2000. This account shows a highly sensitive and at times ironic view of psychiatry, which is not necessarily compatible with certain criticisms made against it. In answering the question of whether madness is an individual attribute or process of social construction, we can essentially say tat it is both. In abstract terms, there really cannot be any such entity as 'madness' since all experience is subjective, and no-one individual can proclaim which experiences are valid and which are not. It is however reasonable to argue that before the emergence of society, given man in isolation, madness could not exist- this is of course due to its relative and interdependent nature. However, with the birth of society and the necessity to order things around us, the representation of madness is reified and come to exist as reality, and whilst it is more fluid/ dynamic than many of the other categories we create such as gender, it is not something which can be ignored. On the other hand, it is crucial to recognize the growing body of evidence which suggests that some mental illnesses can be attributed to biological defects in the brain, which I would argue can become more or less pronounced depending wider society's representation of madness. Critiques of mental healthcare, such s that of Foucalt, are specific to time and perhaps slightly outdated. The fact is that mental health practioners actually hold more positive representations of the mentally ill and it is they who are entering into the dialogue Foucault argued for. Additionally, it is the mental health practioners who appear to be deconstructing the traditional confines pf what constitutes and what 'ought' to constitute 'normal' behaviour. Undoubtedly, there is a greater level of understanding to be reached in this area, and for the most part it is the lay representations of the mentally ill, that prevent these individuals from becoming the valid and recognized members of a society that they deserve to be.

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