BASS Politics and Sociology

Year of entry: 2023

Course unit details:
Sociology of Mental Health & Illness

Course unit fact file
Unit code SOCY30262
Credit rating 20
Unit level Level 3
Teaching period(s) Semester 2
Available as a free choice unit? Yes


This module takes a critical lens on what is meant by ‘mental illness’ and ‘mental health’ and how these terms have taken on new meanings over time. We will focus on sociological, biomedical, psychiatric, and psychological definitions of ‘madness’ and mental illness from (mostly) the 20th Century onwards, and critique how these definitions and treatments for these problems have been shaped by powerful statutory agencies. Our focus will be mainly the UK and North American context.


Once we have set the scene for ‘what mental illness is’, we will look at the political factors involved in the de-institutionalisation of mental health care as well as the increasing pharmaceuticalisation of mental illness in the last 50 years. This will complement another area we investigate in this course, the rise of the psychiatric profession and the growing survivor/user movement that has developed as being anti-psychiatry. 


Additionally, we will consider the debates for the different causes and processes involved in the development of mental suffering, and how certain subpopulations are more at risk of developing mental illness, which is related to their often marginalised positions in society (e.g. ethnic minority populations, women, people on low income). We will also consider how stigma has been conceptualised in relation to mental illness starting with Goffman’s work (1963).


Finally, we will link empirical and theoretical knowledge about the rise of the psychiatric profession and Big Pharma to the global mental health context, where local practices and knowledge around how to help those suffering with mental illness is increasingly being replaced with psychotropic medication and Western models of medicine.


The course aims to

  • Explore and critically evaluate the meaning and use of the terms ‘mental illness’ and ‘mental health’ from a sociological perspective and relate these understandings to other discipline-specific understandings (e.g. biomedicine, psychiatry, psychology)
  • Provide historical and contemporary perspectives on the changing nature, definition, measurement and diagnosis of ‘mental illness’
  • Provide epidemiological data and theoretical frameworks to understand the causes of mental illness 
  • Understand how societies across time and place have responded to, and treated mentally ill persons, with particular attention to how state agencies have been the locus of social control of this population
  • Consider how and why mental illness disproportionately affects certain subpopulations (e.g. women, ethnic minority people, people in poverty), and how this reproduces and exacerbates social inequities.

Teaching and learning methods

Weekly 2 hour lecture and weekly 1 hour tutorial

Knowledge and understanding

Student should be able to 

Knowledge and Understanding:

  • Understand the difficulties in defining mental illness and evaluate competing approaches to the study of mental illness (e.g. social constructionism, anti-psychiatry).
  • Be able to apply theoretical knowledge to the understanding of historical and contemporary controversies in the broad field of mental illness (including problems of diagnosis, over-medicalisation and apparent unsafe treatments).

Intellectual skills

Student should be able to

  • Evaluate competing analytical perspectives
  • Assess the strengths and weaknesses of empirical evidence, including numerical data
  • Employ material available from academic, media and policy sources to make effective arguments.
  • Develop a critical approach to academic, media and policy texts.
  • Peer review colleagues’ work against a set criteria

Practical skills

Student should be able to

  • Use library and electronic sources and resources
  • Undertake an evaluation of a case study and present a written report

Transferable skills and personal qualities

Student should be able to

  • Present ideas and ask questions in group discussion.
  • Group presentation skills

Assessment methods

Method Weight
Written exam 50%
Written assignment (inc essay) 50%

Formative Assessment: non assessed group presentations with peer-review by students. For DASS-registered students that are not able to participate in this activity equally, there will be alternatives to submit slides and or/ write a short piece answering the formative assessment question.

Assessed Coursework: written report based on case study materials given to students  3000 words

Assessed Exam

Part A [1 hour]: 10 short questions on a short extract within one of the topics on the course

Part B [1 hour]: 1 essay question out of a choice of 2 questions

Feedback methods

All sociology courses include both formative feedback - which lets you know how you’re getting on and what you could do to improve - and summative feedback - which gives you a mark for your assessed work.

Recommended reading

Bracken, P., & Thomas, P. (2001). Postpsychiatry: a new direction for mental health. British Medical Journal, 322, 724–727.

Busfield, J. (2000). Introduction: Rethinking the sociology of mental health. Sociology of Health and Illness, 22(5), 543–558.

Conrad, P. (2007). The Medicalization of Society: On the Transformation of Human Conditions into Treatable Disorders. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Davies, J. (2013). Cracked: Why Psychiatry is doing more harm than good. London: Icon Books Ltd.

Fanon, F. (1986). Black Skin, White Masks. London: Pluto Press.

Goffman, E. (1961). Asylums: Essays on the social situation of mental patients and other inmates. London: Penguin Books Ltd.

Goffman, E. (1963). Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. London: Penguin Books Ltd.

Horwitz, A. V. (2003). Creating Mental Illness. London: The University of Chicago Press Ltd.

Kalathil, J. (2011). Recovery and resilience: African, African-Caribbean and South Asian women’s narratives of recovering from mental distress. London: Mental Health Foundation.

Kapadia, D., Nazroo, J. & Tranmer, M. (2018). Ethnic differences in women’s use of mental health services: do social networks play a role? Findings from a national survey. Ethnicity & Health, 23(3): 293-306.


Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Assessment written exam 2
Lectures 20
Seminars 10
Independent study hours
Independent study 168

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Dharmi Kapadia Unit coordinator

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