Understanding Sociology in the Context of Mental Health

By John Sepp

Of the social sciences, I perceive sociology to be one of the most captivating and influential areas of study. Simply put, it examines society, but spans much greater lengths than just this. Social life, behavior, interaction, change, groups, and patterns are all at the forefront of what sociology stands for, and why it is so important to our lives. In essence, it requires us to think critically about the world around us, question what we believe to be true and just, and construct solutions to problems we never knew originally existed. Peter L. Berger, one of the most prominent sociologists of his time, depicted the crux of sociology as this simple concept: things are not as they seem.  In this article, I will expand upon what it means to think like a sociologist, and how we can harness this “sociological lens” and apply it to the realm of mental health. 

It is important to note that sociology is a science, and thus should be grounded in factual integrity, even if the work of different sociologists is founded on a theoretical basis. When we examine the world sociologically, we aim to gather data about what is around us, in order to develop questions, and eventually solutions. Some of the first areas to examine in a society are the demographic categories of race, gender, class, and age. Once we know these individual characteristics, we slowly move up to the community level. We can ask questions like: Do these people attend church or are they religious? How do individuals in this community interact with each other? What specific forces from this individual’s community shape who they have become?  Afterwards, we continue to move from the “micro” to “macro” and study the institutional relationships involved. How has the government and its policies affected this particular community, resulting in the individual’s outcomes? Why do certain communities have different relationships with the government? It is this systematic inquiry—collecting facts in front of us and analyzing the possible forces and motives to explain the phenomena we witness on a daily basis—that encapsulates the field of sociology. 

The great asset that sociology holds is that it can probe and be applied to any area of interest in the world. When we think of mental health today, we know how deeply its effects have progressed and evolved in our world; changing generations, the COVID pandemic, and other forces that inflict harm on our well-being have shaped how we perceive and experience mental health.  I always say to myself that if I want to be competent in any subject, I must know how it works in a way that goes beyond having basic information and facts thrown at me.  We must engage, think critically, and truly be interested and have a purpose.  

For sociology & mental health, we must first ask some questions, such as why are some people’s lives defined by happiness, and others consumed by sadness? Why do some individuals struggle to integrate into society, and how does this mold their state of mind? As always, genetics and biology do indeed play a role in the predisposition to certain neurological disorders such as schizophrenia, depression, anxiety, and more. Just as the doctor asks if our families have a history of diabetes or heart disease, the biochemistry of the mind can also be passed to offspring. Yet, this does not explain much of the outcomes we see in people, and that is when sociology begins to shine. When we begin to examine how social influences, conditions, and experiences shape who we are, we notice that while each individual is unique, their shared experiences and similar circumstances produce patterns. A chapter by Allan Horwitz describes how going through a divorce, severe trauma such as a car accident, physical/sexual abuse, or grief and death are prime influences on our lives, producing results in individuals we only see on the surface of their behavior. It is important to be holistically aware, however, and incorporating the story of a person to its fullest is the way towards an accurate understanding of their mental health. Thinking of living conditions, childhood versus adulthood, culture, attitudes and responses toward stress, and more allows us to make predictions about what we have observed on the surface, and how it has or will translate into positive or negative mental health outcomes.  

Sociology is a deeply complex subject that requires an investigative approach towards society.  It is often difficult to cope with the understanding that despite our best efforts and intentions, we may never know the whole story of what we are trying to read—even after removing bias and giving a conscious effort to uncover the truth. Without the techniques and values sociology stands for, however, we are left with a rudimentary understanding of the world around us, potentially leaving us prone to emotional instability, limiting our perception, and quite possibly, our damaging mental health itself.

John graduated from the University of Michigan in 2022 with a bachelor’s degree in Biology, Health and Society (BHS). His favorite courses have been immunology, sociology, and public health, and he plans on going to graduate school in one of these areas in the coming year. He has taken an increased interest in mental health because of COVID, seeing how much it has affected our society just as much as our physical health.

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