One of the more interesting ideas I’ve ran across in my studies is the idea that mental illness exists in social construction.  I really appreciate this especially given that psychology and the idea of “normal” has been used for years to justify existing systems of oppression.  I don’t buy into the extreme of this idea, that mental illness is a totally made-up entity and that if “everyone just accepted each other, people who are dealing with mental illness wouldn’t have any problems.”  The requirement of “clinically significant impairment or distress” is an important one.  That being said, for the most part, I really think it is important to consider any mental illness diagnosis or designation in a personal, familial and societal context – in other words, who is being empowered and oppressed by this statement? Does it work for, and best serve the client and the client’s system?

Given my interest in mental illness as a social construction, I found a study reported by Science Daily on the potential of a urine test for autism to be really interesting.  Researchers at the Imperial College in London and the University of South Australia have found that children with autism have distinct markers in their urine that differ from children who do not have autism.  With further research, this could potentially lead to a urine test that could lead to a diagnosis of autism, or at least the confirmation of biological markers that are associated with it.  (As the DSM has been built on behavioral indications since at least the third edition, even if a child tested positive for autism they would still need to demonstrate the significant deficit in social skills required by the current edition.)

When I ran across this study, at first I was really excited.  How cool would it be if we could identify mental illness earlier and thus begin treatment earlier?  Additionally, I can see where having a biologic test for a mental illness may decrease stigma that is associated with it – it would seem like our modernist culture may have an easier time digesting behavioral disturbances if they have a marked biological cause.  However, I can also see where having a biologic test for a mental illness may create the bandwagon fallacy that the condition is inevitable or certain.  Or, am I missing the forest for the trees: can mental illness have both solely biologic etiologies and still be socially defined?  IE, if we say that an individual has traits A and B which equal condition X, if that individual still has traits A and B, but we decide that they equal Y, or X without a social stigma, is it still a mental illness?

What defines mental illness?  Should professionals consider the effect of social stigma in the maintenance of “clinically significant distress or impairment”?  How powerful is “normal”?  Is biologic tests for mental illness a good or bad thing?  Why?

Imperial College London (2010, June 3). Autism finding could lead to simple urine test for the condition. ScienceDaily. Retrieved June 3, 2010, from http://www.sciencedaily.com­ /releases/2010/06/100603091641.htm

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