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The Social Construct of Schizophrenia: Deinstitutionalization to Criminalization of the Mentally Ill

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Length: 15 minutes

Martha Rose, MBA

This paper examines how the definition and social construct of mental illness has seen a dramatic shift.  Politics, finance, economics, and distortions in public perception have driven policy considerations.  These policy decisions have dramatically changed the treatment available, and the overall societal attitudes.

In the 1950s new medications altered the external behavior of people who previously had been seen as bizarre and dangerous.  These drugs demonstrated that what had at the time been considered a psychological problem was in fact a physiological problem.

Now, most mental illnesses are treated as brain disease, and managed from a bio-neurological perspective.  The thinking is that people need to use medications to control their minds and actions.  Current research and social conditions indicate that this medicalized approach to treatment is insufficient at best, and harmful at worst.  There are concerns being raised on the iatrogenic effect of the medications, contributing to the increased level and intensity of emotional disturbance within society.

This change in social construct emptied the mental hospitals, while shifting much of the financial burden from state budgets to Federal entitlement programs.  It also led to a void in services to address the social, emotional, and psychological aspects of treatment.

An unintended result has been incarceration for many.  The nation’s jails and prisons now house disproportionate numbers of the mentally ill.  Close to 60% of the prison population is considered to have a mental illness, with the seriously mentally ill representing half of that group, or 25% of the entire correction population.


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