Deviance and Mental Illness

Psychological theories of deviant behavior help explain why a rich and famous person like Winona Ryder would shoplift.
Steve Grayson/Getty Images

Deviance and mental illness often go hand-in-hand. While not all deviants are considered mentally ill, almost all mentally ill persons are considered deviant (since mental illness is not considered "normal"). When studying deviance, then, sociologists also often study mental illness.

Theoretical Frameworks

The three main theoretical frameworks of sociology regard mental illness a little differently, however, they all look to the social systems in which mental illness is defined, identified, and treated. Functionalists believe that by recognizing mental illness, society upholds values about conforming behavior. Symbolic interactionists see mentally ill persons not as "sick," but as victims of societal reactions to their behavior.

Finally, conflict theorists, combined with labeling theorists, believe that the people in a society with the fewest resources are the most likely to be labeled mentally ill. For instance, women, racial minorities, and the poor all suffer higher rates of mental illness than groups of higher social and economic status. Further, research has consistently shown that middle- and upper-class persons are more likely to receive some form of psychotherapy for their mental illness. Minorities and poorer individuals are more likely to only receive medication and physical rehabilitation, and not psychotherapy.

Sociologists have two possible explanations for the link between social status and mental illness. First, some say it is the stresses of being in a low-income group, being a racial minority, or being a woman in a sexist society that contributes to higher rates of mental illness because this harsher social environment is a threat to mental health. On the other hand, others argue that the same behavior that is labeled mentally ill for some groups may be tolerated in other groups and so therefore not labeled as such. For instance, if a homeless woman were to exhibit crazy, “deranged” behavior, she would be considered mentally ill whereas if a rich woman exhibited the same behavior, she might be seen as merely eccentric or charming.

Women also have higher rates of mental illness than men. Sociologists believe that this stems from the roles that women are forced to play in society. Poverty, unhappy marriages, physical and sexual abuse, the stresses of rearing children, and spending a lot of time doing housework all contribute to higher rates of mental illness for women.


  • Giddens, A. (1991). Introduction to Sociology. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company. Andersen, M.L. and Taylor, H.F. (2009). Sociology: The Essentials. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth.
mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Crossman, Ashley. "Deviance and Mental Illness." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Crossman, Ashley. (2020, August 27). Deviance and Mental Illness. Retrieved from Crossman, Ashley. "Deviance and Mental Illness." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 10, 2021).