Mental Illness and Social Class – University of Copenhagen

Social Class, Diagnosis and Treatment in the Nordic Countries after the Second World War

August 9-11, 2017 in Copenhagen

Today it is an established fact that when the higher socioeconomic classes are compared to the poor, the poor are at a greater risk for illness, and they have a shorter life span. Research on health inequalities has suggested that each step downward on the socioeconomic ladder correlates with poorer health. Much-discussed research of the social epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson, Michael Marmot and Kate Pickett suggests that increased income disparity between rich and poor predict poorer health for both. Consequently, social class appears to be a significant variable that needs to be taken into account when the incidence of prevalence of mental disorders is examined and explained.

Historically, research on the correlations between social class and mental illness started with the now classic study of mental disorders in urban Chicago by Faris & Dunham in 1939. In the 1950s and the 1960s, American population mental health studies confirmed the thesis that the prevalence of mental illness is to some extent dependent on socio-economic status of individuals. However, there are no general population studies providing information about mental health and social inequalities across European countries. Furthermore, only little research on the history of mental disorders and social class has been conducted in the Nordic countries.

In the second NOS-HS workshop on mental illness and social class we will explore aspects of class, diagnoses and treatments. Whereas the first workshop focused on theoretical issues – how the correlation between social class and mental illness was constructed in mental health research, the aim of the second workshop is to widen and deepen our understanding by asking how these theoretical constructions were reflected in the diagnoses of mental illnesses and in clinical work. 

Were patients from the “lower” classes subjected to more intrusive somatic interventions than patients from the middle-classes (such as lobotomy and insulin shock treatment) and were they subjected to involuntary treatment more frequently than middle-class patients? As diagnoses do not just objectively mirror underlying pathologies but are also influenced by socio-cultural factors, we ask if there were class-based differences in the use of diagnoses (e.g. was manic-depression applied more frequently to patients of higher classes)? How much could a doctor’s awareness of a patient’s social background influence or even predefine diagnoses and the choices of treatment?

Potential topics might include:

  • Somatic treatments
  • Psychopharmacology
  • Diagnostic procedures
  • Specific diagnoses
  • Institutional histories
  • Hospital admission and discharge
  • Child and adolescent psychiatry
  • Forensic psychiatry
  • Social psychiatry
  • Psychiatric epidemiology
  • Family care
  • Doctor-patient relationship
  • Patients’ perspectives

Organized by:

- Jesper Vaczy Kragh, Copenhagen Centre for Health Research in the Humanities (CoRe) at the University of Copenhagen (DK)
Jari Eilola, University of Jyväskylä (FI)
- Petteri Pietikäinen, Oulu University (FI)
- Annika Berg, Stockholm University (SE)

At this concluding workshop in the NOS-HS Workshop series Mental Illness and social inequality we aim to widen and deepen our understanding by asking how social class was reflected in the diagnoses of mental illnesses and in clinical work.