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Why Categorize?

mlhodges's picture

 Why Categorize?


“The general public must infer mental illness from four signals: psychiatric symptoms, social skills deficits, physical appearance, and labels”

-Corrigan, 2000


“This labeling effect for mental disorders is different from how society perceives somatic disorders. If a person recovers from cancer, he or she is not referred to as “being cancer” or “is cancer”. Instead, because we know that cancer is something that we can recover from, he or she is referred to as cancer-free. With mental illness, we say "he is OCD," or "she is bipolar," as if to say that the term “OCD” or “bipolar” thoroughly describes someone. This allows us to ignore the patient’s actions as being either “good” or “bad” because all that matters is the fact that he or she “is” that label…”

-Association for Natural Psychology


“In newspapers it is common practice to mention that a rapist or a murderer was once a mental patient. Here are several examples: Under the headline “Question Girl in Child Slaying,” the story begins, “A 15-year old girl with a history of mental illness is being questioned in connection with a kidnap-slaying of a 3-year-old boy.” A similar story under the headline “Man Killed, Two Policemen Hurt in Hospital Fray” begins, “A former mental patient grabbed a policeman’s revolver and began shooting at 15 persons in the receiving room of City Hospital No. 2 Thursday.” Often acts of violence will be connected with mental illness on the basis of little or no evidence. For instance, under the headline “Milwaukee Man Goes Berserk, Shoots Officer,” the story describes the events and then quotes a police captain who said, “He may be a mental case.”

Meanwhile, an item like the following is almost inconceivable: “Mrs. Ralph Jones, an ex-mental patient, was elected president of the Fairview Home and Garden Society at their meeting last Thursday.”

Because of this highly biased reporting, the reader is free to make the unwarranted inference that murder and rape and other acts of violence occur more frequently among formal mental patients than among the population at large. Actually, it has been demonstrated that the incidence of crimes of violence (or any crime) is much lower among formal mental patients than in the general population”

-Thomas J. Scheff, 1984



Preliminary questions:

What is the role of categorization, in general?

Why do we categorize people based on race, ethnicity, religion, politics, occupation, etc.?

What are the advantages of categorizing people? The disadvantages?


Can science exist without categorization?


Mental Illness

Why do we categorize people into two strict groups - “mentally ill” and “not mentally ill”? Simplicity? Ignorance?


Think: Is there scientific evidence to support this categorization?


The Labeling Theory

Howard Becker’s Labeling Theory - contends that labeling an individual as mentally ill not only stigmatizes that individual, but encourages or produces the very behavior deemed by psychiatry to be disturbing

-Is this theory the catalyst behind a vicious cycle?

-By categorizing people, are we feeding stigmas? Discrimination? Are we eliminating stigmas? Discrimination?


The Mental Health Spectrum

Would eradication of the term “mental illness” force us to accept that mental health is a spectrum instead of something that can be categorized as “healthy” or “ill”? If not, what tactics could be used to encourage this change?

Who would benefit from this change? 


Crystal Leonard's picture

The question of why we

The question of why we categorize is an interesting one, so I brought it up at dinner with my friends tonight. They are from very different fields, so they brought an interesting perspective to the conversation. One of them brought up the idea that language itself is a categorization of abstract ideas into specific symbols such as words. Thus, in order to communicate our thoughts with anyone else, we automatically must categorize those thoughts. Even the concept of a thought is a categorization of one possible result of a neuronal excitation that does not have a physical output. My friends decided it was impossible to do anything without some form of categorization, so it is useless to try. Instead they were more interested in accepting some basal level of categorization and looking more deeply at the usefulness of more refined levels of categorization. I don't often actively think about the assumptions and categorizations that I am making, both as a scientist and as a person in general, so this was a fun, yet frustrating conversation.

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