Social Stress and Mental Illness

Although mental illness is common, it does not burden all social groups equally. So why do some social groups experience more mental illness than others? For many sociologists, the answer lies in their different levels of social stress.

In the past, sociologists interested in the link between mental illness and stress largely focused on the acute stresses of life events such as divorce, losing a job, or a death in the family. Researchers looked not only at the sheer number of life events individuals experienced but also at the meaning life events have for people and the resources individuals have for dealing with those life events. For example, an unplanned pregnancy means something quite different to an unmarried college student from a poor family than it does to a married, middle-class housewife.

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Similarly, some individuals have resources that can reduce the stresses of life events (such as money, social support networks, and psychological coping skills), whereas others lack such resources. For example, a person whose marriage fails but who has enough income to maintain his or her current lifestyle, close friends to provide companionship and social support, and good stress-management skills will probably experience less stress than someone whose economic standing plummets after divorce, who has few friends, and who responds to stress by drinking.

As we saw in Chapter 2, recent research finds that chronic stress is more im- portant than acute stress for predicting poor physical health. Similarly, researchers have shown that chronic stresses affect mental health more than do acute stresses such as life events. Much research in this field now focuses on how exposure to chronic social stress may explain ethnic, gender, and social class differences in rates of mental illness.