Mental illness affects many people: however, it is a difficult topic for sociological research. Social analysts such as Thomas Szasz (1984) have argued that mental illness i~ a myth. According to this approach. "mental illnesses" are actually individual traits or behaviors that society deems unacceptable, immoral, or deviant.
According to Szasz, labeling individuals as "mentally ll" harms them because they often come to accept the label and are then treated accordingly by others. Is mental illness a myth? After decades of debate on this issue, social analysts are no closer to reaching a consensus than the)' were when Szasz originally introduced his ideas. However, many scholars believe that mental illness is a reality that has biological, psychological, environmental, social, and other factors involved. Many medical professionals distinguish between a mental Jisorttu-a condition that makes it difficult or impossible for a person to cope with everyday life-and mental mncss-a condition in which a person has a severe mental disorder requiring extensive treatment with medication. psychotherapy, and sometimes hospitalization. How many eople arc affected by mental illness? Some answers to this question have come from a systematic national study known as the Natfonal Comorbidity Survey, The term cotnorbidity refers to the physical and .mental conditions-such as physical illness and depression-that compound each other and undermine the individual's overall well-being (Angel and Angel. 1993). Researchers in the study found that among respondents between the ages of 15 and 54. nearly 50 percent had been diagnosed with a mental disorder at some time in their lives (Kessler. 1994). However. severe mental illness-such as schizophrenia.
bipolar affective disorder (manic-depression). and major depression-typically affects less than 15 percent of u.s. adults at some time in their lives (Bourdon et
al .• 1992; Kessler. 1994). According to the researchers. the prevalence of mental disorders in the United States is greater than most analysts had previously believed.
The most widely accepted classification of mental disorders is the American Psychiatric Association's (1994) Diagnostic and Statistical MUltILIn of Meut.Jl Disorders