Mental Illness: Universality versus Social Construction

By Audrey Oneal posted 09-27-2018 11:12


Ray (2018) noted that in the 1970’s, Jane Murphey of Harvard University studied the Eskimos of northwest Alaska and the Yoruba of rural Nigeria. This study was undertaken at a point in time when mental illness was regarded to have a relation to learning and the social construction of norms, or that mental illness did not exist was simply created by society. In addition, there was also a belief that mental illness had been created by Western societies.

 A critical implication of this perspective tended to be that what we would define as mental illness in Western culture would be vastly different than that of mental illness in rural culture in a developing nation, for example. Murphy discovered that the two distinct cultures she studied were familiar with the process of individuals being, “out of their minds” (p. 15). Murphy also discovered that the process of maladaptive behavior and distorted thoughts in like manner to schizophrenia are common in both cultures and that distinct cultures have language and words for the terms psychosis and neurosis. Ray (2018) pointed out that Murphy undertook a review of studies conducted by other researchers and concluded that mental illness appeared to be common in diverse cultures. Therefore, the prevalence and similarity across cultures suggests that mental illness is part of the human condition rather than derived from cultures. The researcher noted that culture does play a role in the manifestation of mental illness in the community. 


Evolutionary Perspective

Ray (2018) explained that an evolutionary perspective is helpful in expanding our thinking as psychologists by taking into consideration how certain behavior might be adaptive. For example, as the researcher noted a fear of heights might serve in helping individuals avoid taking certain unneeded risks. Questions can also be raised as to whether certain disordered behavior might be secondary to other processes that might prove to be beneficial. The researcher noted that the blood disorder sickle cell anemia is known to cause an array of physiological problems. However, the disorder also provides resistance to malaria. Individuals with schizophrenia broadly speaking have fewer children than those without the disorder. Hence, the expectation might be that the disorder might have disappeared eventually across the evolutionary history of man via individuals with the disorder having had fewer children with the related genetics to schizophrenia. Schizophrenia in point of fact, occurs at the same percentage (1 %) of the population of the world suggesting that it is an ancient disorder dating back to 80 to 100 thousand years ago and in existence since humans migrated out of Africa. The researcher also noted that the disorder may also have an association with a more positive human trait: creativity.  



Genetics and Environment

Ray (2018) noted that twin studies provide the opportunity to observe an event in nature that helps facilitate the understanding of important factors associated with genetic influences. The researcher explained that there are two types of twins. For example, the researcher pointed out that monozygotic twins are identical twins that have been produced from the fertilized egg, or the zygote during the first two weeks of gestation. The genes are identical as they are produced from the same egg. In contrast, Dizygotic twins result from two different eggs fertilized by two distinct sperm. These are fraternal twins as their shared genes are 50% similar to two siblings.   

The researcher explained how classic research design studies compare and contrast the responses of MZ twins and DZ twins on certain behavioral traits such as for example, intelligence or personality characteristics.

As DZ and MZ twins it would be assumed would have been raised in similar environmental influences within the family, the differences between the two would be viewed to be the result of genetic influences. The researcher referred to a study by Gottesman (1991) in which schizophrenia was studied. In these studies, there would be a greater likelihood of an MZ twin having schizophrenia if the other twin also did. In contrast, in DZ twins this was not so. The researcher pointed out that statistically speaking, researchers investigate the statistical degree to which twins are identical as part of a “function of genetic influences and environmental influences” (p. 119). Adoption study is another critical type of behavioral genetics research. In this situation, DZ and MZ twins have not been raised together but in separate families. In research undertaken with more than 100 pairs of twins, it was discovered that there was a 70 percent variance in IQ that could be associated to genetic factors. Studies undertaken later were able to support that specific finding. The researcher noted that if the family lived in poverty, the degree of association decreased greatly. 

DiLalla and Gottesman (1995) noted in their study concerning twins with disorders that the findings showed evidence of, “personality trait differences” (p.) among twins with schizophrenia and co-twins functioning normally. The researcher noted this was a reflection of the damaging impact of schizophrenia on a normal personality as well as the impact on co-twins having a twin sibling with schizophrenia. 


Ray (2018) noted that there has been an emphasis on discovering and using more “objective markers” (p. 54) in the diagnosis and treatment of mental disorders. Using neuroscience research has been one approach. In light of the rise of an array of levels of analysis now available to neuroscientists such as brain imaging genetics, brain networks and so forth, researchers from a variety of disciplines have been enthusiastic about describing cognitive, emotional and motor processes that include areas such as the hippocampus, brain networks related to memory as well as structural changes among neurons. Armed with this knowledge, it is feasible for researchers to study psychopathological conditions that involve the memory system such as delusions and amnesia.

Another example of this is the reward system. Ray (2018) noted that several studies have shown that specific brain structures particularly the nucleus accumbens a part of the ventral striatum are indeed influenced by a rise in dopamine during reward. The researcher explained all addictive drugs produce dopamine release in the nucleus accumbens. Further, the activation of the nucleus accumbens is also correlated to the degree of cravings.  Murray, Eisner, and Ribaud (2017) noted that the most studied anatomical structure related to reward processing is the ventral striatum which includes the nucleus accumbens and involves, “valuation, anticipation, and consumption of rewards” (p. 2).   

Ray (2018) noted that as neuroscience has progressed with the use of brain imaging and genetics as levels of analysis, new levels of analysis have emerged providing a variety of perspectives that have influenced the field of mental health. What were once perceived as discrete categories of psychopathology are now viewed differently when genetics is taken into consideration. Researchers have also taken neural networks into consideration in light of specific manifestations of psychopathology. As such, mental disorders can be described in a categorical and dimensional manner. 

For example, in the physical sciences a phenomenon can be described categorically and dimensionally. Water is heated and then rises in temperature and the dimensional manner can be described in terms of the number of degrees the water is heated. As the water turns into steam, it becomes categorically different. With regard to psychopathology, it is critical to ascertain the “underlying dimensional changes” (p. 53), that are related to categorical changes that lead to a disordered state.   

Conrad, Conrad, Mazza, Riley, Funk, Stein, and Dennis (2012) explained that even though categorical models such as the DSM-V have pursued a traditional approach and placed individuals within specific diagnoses there is increased evidence that externalizing disorders are a product of “underlying psychopathological processes rather than discrete disorders” (p. 915). 



Brain Structures

Ray (2018) pointed out that with regard to brain structure, several of the structures related to the processing of emotions are also critical for social behavior. Brain structures that involve social interactions are associated with three distinct processes. The researcher noted, for example the first process is involved with neo-cortical regions pertaining to the processing of sensory information. This is how humans know they experience via vision, hearing, touch and so forth.  The researcher noted that the affective system is instrumental in predicting social behavior involving the amygdala, striatum, and orbitofrontal cortex. The function of the amygdala involves processing events of emotional impact.

For example, stimulating positive emotions if we someone smiling or in contrast, activating negative emotions upon encountering someone who appears angry or fearful. Another process is associated with the higher cortical regions of the neocortex which involve cognition and regulation. The researcher   explained these regions of the brain are instrumental in the construction of an interior model of the social world.

For example, associated with this model might be the development of a social understanding of other people and their relationship with individuals including ourselves, as well understanding the meaning of our individual actions on a social group. These particular areas of the brain are also related to the “theory of mind basis for social interactions” (p. 192). Theory of mind relates to the human ability to understand one’s or another’s mental state. Further, the pre-frontal cortex is also instrumental in other aspects of social relationships such as moral behavior, social aggression, and cooperation. Additionally, the pre-frontal cortex can experience activation during humor and embarrassment which is also referred to as a moral emotion by the researcher.  


Conrad, K. J., Conrad, K. M., Mazza, J., Riley, B. B., Funk, R., Stein, M. A., & Dennis, M. L. (2012). Dimensionality, hierarchical structure, age generalizability, and criterion validity of the GAIN's Behavioral Complexity Scale. Psychological Assessment24(4), 913-924. doi:10.1037/a0028196  

DiLalla, D. L., & Gottesman, I. I. (1995). Normal personality characteristics in identical twins discordant for schizophrenia. Journal Of Abnormal Psychology104(3), 490-499. doi:10.1037/0021-843X.104.3.490   

Gottesman, I. I. (2001). Psychopathology through a life span-genetic prism. American Psychologist56(11), 867-878. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.56.11.867    


Murray, A. L., Eisner, M., & Ribeaud, D. (2017). Can the Social Behavior Questionnaire Help Meet the Need for Dimensional, Transdiagnostic Measures of Childhood and Adolescent Psychopathology?. European Journal Of Psychological Assessment, doi:10.1027/1015-5759/a000442  

 Ray, W. J.  (2018).   Abnormal psychology/Case Studies in Abnormal Psychology.  (2nd ed.).  Thousand Oaks, CA  SAGE Publishing.