The medicalisation of deviance

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    The sudden death of actor Heath Ledger in early 2008 sparked wide spread media attention. Stories claimed he had been ‘battling an addiction to heroin’, or more broadly, ‘battling drugs, alcohol, and depression’, that ‘he suffered from insomnia’, was ‘dealing with terrible mood swings’, and had ‘became a recluse’, and it was reported that police found ‘anti-anxiety and sleeping pills’ (Dunn &Balogh 2008) in his apartment. These descriptions paint a picture of a psychologically troubled individual experiencing a number of emotions and capable of fitting several different psychiatric diagnostic categories—for example, substance abuse, depressive disorders, sleep disorders, social phobia, and social anxiety disorder—and concluding that he was ‘too late in getting help’. The kind of help implied in this context is medical intervention: rehabilitation, therapy, and counselling. Few reports offered a ‘cohesive narrative’ (Norris 2008, p. 27).The mass media seems to be fascinated by the failures, idiosyncrasies, ‘bad’ behaviour, and unusual lives of many celebrities. Similarly, news reports following the singer Whitney Houston’s death by drowning emphasised that she was a ‘“chronic” user of cocaine … her life was once again spinning out of control’ and that ‘she became anorexic’ (Goodwin 2012). Each of these reports suggests psychological distress and highlights symptoms of several possible psychological or psychiatric conditions. The way in which the lives and deaths of celebrities are reported often becomes an arena for the articulation of social norms and moral boundaries regarding appropriate and deviant behaviour. Even so, explanations for their aberrations are often highly individualised and sometimes use the language of mental illness. It seems easy to explain unusual or errant behaviour by labelling the individual as suffering from a mental illness, including depression or various addictions, directing our attention to problems restricted to that individual and their life or lifestyle and distracting attention from wider social issues. Five decades ago, Thomas Szasz coined the term ‘the myth of mental illness’ (1960; 1961)to draw attention to the way in which mental illness was being used as a ‘catch-all’ label applied to a wide range of behaviours that did not have a clearly identifiable biological cause. His claim that many of the conditions and complaints subsumed under the label ‘mental illness’ are not biomedical in origin, but are caused by ‘problems in living’ that stem from the complexities of modern life, is no less true today.
    Original languageEnglish
    Title of host publicationSecond opinion
    Subtitle of host publicationan introduction to health sociology
    EditorsJohn Germov
    Place of PublicationSouth Melbourne, Australia
    PublisherOxford University Press
    Number of pages21
    ISBN (Print)9780195520149
    Publication statusPublished - 2014


    • deinstitutionalisation
    • deviance
    • discourse
    • empirical
    • epidemiology
    • social epidemiology
    • individualism
    • individualisation
    • labelling theory
    • medical dominance
    • medicalisation
    • Medicare
    • psychogenic
    • therapeutic justice


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