Data Type: Journal Article

Changing ideas of mental illness and its treatment.

Woodward, J. L. (1951). Changing ideas of mental illness and its treatment. American Sociological Review, 16(4), 443-454.

Woodward’s work seeks to show that, during the 1940s and 1950s, there had been an emerging shift in popular ideas about mental illness from folklore to scientific knowledge. In the study, the answers to interview questions and responses to the case scenarios tended to show that, at the time of the study, the general populace no longer believed in the stereotypical, populist knowledge about the mentally ill that was prevalent a few decades prior. Woodward noted that this was especially the case among younger respondents.

This study was based on interviews that were conducted based on census data in Louisville (readers may want to note the limited sample size, but should also keep in mind that this was an early study). While a specific method is not mentioned in this relatively short article, the study took apart the survey/interview questions and examined them (as well as their possible responses) one-by-one, while providing some basic descriptive statistics along the way. While the data generally supported the idea that respondents, especially younger ones, were leaning more toward scientific (versus populist) beliefs about mental health, Woodward gleaned a few additional findings from his respondents. First, the responses, especially regarding the cases scenarios, also showed a public disinclination (especially among the younger and more educated members of the community) for having people (particularly juvenile delinquents) endure unnecessary embarrassment and incarceration. However, many individuals still seemed to suggest religious treatments during the case scenarios, which Woodward argues is unsurprising as religion was their most accustomed outlet for “mental health” issues. Second, in other survey questions, it was found that few people appeared to completely refuse referring someone to a psychiatrist, and that more people viewed psychiatrists as important decision-makers in the community. However, Woodward suggests that some of the survey responses showed that the psychiatrist’s role was still somewhat undefined in the less pressing mental health issues: that the psychiatrist was still stigmatized as being a “last resort” option. And finally, because of preponderance of respondents with similar jobs, some other patterns emerged in the results; for example, lawyers were found to be associated with the most conservative (and punitive) opinions on mental health treatments.

While this study focuses on psychiatry, it predates the popular emergence of psychology, and thus is still relevant to the sociology of the field. This is because, early on, it briefly tracks the social views on the use of psychiatry (one of the few predominant ways to handle mental health “issues” at the time), views, which became more loose and accepting in the late 1940s and 1950s, suggesting that attitudes toward mental health treatment are liable to change. Moreover, the author notes that younger members of the community tended to have the most accepting attitudes toward what were considered contemporary mental health treatments at the time.

Categories: History & Philosophy of Psychology & Psychiatry, Sociology of Mental Health and Illness
Publication Date: 1951