Date of Award


Document Type

Honors Thesis (Colby Access Only)


Colby College. Sociology Dept.


Thomas J. Morrione

Second Advisor

Teresa Arendell


With the exception of known organic mental disorders, a range of psychiatric illnesses has no apparent biological cause. I argue that these psychiatric illnesses are largely social constructions. They are not illnesses in the same way cancer is, for example. Instead, they are categorizations of socially deviant behavior defined by social authorities. Starting in the late nineteenth century, clinicians ascribed medical meaning to “madness" and treated socially deviant behavior as if it were a legitimate medical illness. Definitions have changed since then to include an ever-expanding list of medical designations for what are now called mental disorders. Some would argue that the medicalization of mental illness is a great scientific advancement. I do not believe this is the case. With any "progress," one must consider who benefits from and who is disadvantaged by institutional changes.

Historically, the medical model of mental illness has functioned to categorize aspects of women's femininity as "sickness" and has prompted medical "treatment" for such "illness." Although perceptions of the "causes" of women’s mental illness have changed-with less focus on female reproductive dysfunction and more on emotional and behavioral patterns-I argue that definitions of mental "illness" continue to subordinate women in the present moment as they did in the late nineteenth century. There is no single "cause" for mental "illness;" instead, I argue one is on firmer ground and uncovers a more complete and accurate history if one speaks of the history of definitions and diagnoses of mental illness.

Literary representations of women with mental illness written by women open the door to understanding how definitions of mental illness affect the behavior and expression of themselves of those who are vulnerable to the label and stigma of mental "illness." Through illustrating how women have historically responded to authoritative, meaning dominant masculine, definitions of mental illness through written expression, I will show how medical designations of mental illness have functioned as a tool of social control of women’s behavior in terms of what sociologists see as patriarchal society. I analyze sections of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper (1892), Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar (1963), and Katherine Sharpe's Coming of Age on Zoloft (2012). I will use my analyses as support for a reevaluated medical framework of mental "illness" that values narrative therapy.


Full-text access restricted to Colby College per author's preference.


mental illness, deviance, social control, women's studies, gender inequality