Labeling Theory and Mental Illness
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Labeling Theory and Mental Illness book
Much has changed since the introduction of the labeling theory of mental illness. Scientific and public understanding of the causes of serious mental illness has shifted to acknowledge the role of genetic and social causes, yet mental illness still carries a powerful stigma and is often associated with dangerousness (Corrigan and Penn, 1999; Phelan et al., 2000; Corrigan, 2005). Effective medications help to control the symptoms of the most debilitating illnesses, yet many patients lack the insight and support required to comply with treatment regimens. Most mental health treatments are no longer conducted on a long-term basis in the “total institution” of large psychiatric hospitals, but instead are conducted on a voluntary, outpatient basis. At the same time, the loss of public psychiatric hospital capacity to treat and monitor severely ill and economically disadvantaged patients has not been offset by adequate community treatment and has led to an alarming number of persons with mental illness in the criminal justice system (Torrey, 1997; Markowitz, 2006). In this chapter, I review developments in labeling theory as applied to mental illness. First, I review T.J. Scheff’s (1974, 1984) initial version with emphasis on how the theory holds up given the shifts in understanding and treatment of mental illness. Next, I discuss the influential, modified labeling theory (MLT) and the series of studies that have followed, highlighting causal processes revealed and those that remain untested. Finally, I discuss extensions of the theory focused on identity formation and conclude with directions for further study emphasizing data requirements.