The Impact of Social Class

Social Stress or Social Drift? Of all the demographic variables researchers have investigated, social class shows the strongest and most consistent impact on mental illness. As social class goes up, the rate of both diagnosable mental illness and psychological distress goes down. But does lower social class status cause men- tal illness, or does mental illness cause lower social class? In other words, do the social stresses associated with lower-class life lead to greater mental disorder, or do those who suffer from mental disorder drift downward into the lower social classes? These two theories are referred to as social stress theory versus social drift theory, respectively.

Researchers interested in social class have focused primarily on schizophrenia, the disease that shows the most consistent relationship to social class. Studies have found that schizophrenia and related disorders occur two to five times more often among those who have not graduated from college compared with those who have. Those who favor the social drift argument have shown that, for example, when patients are admitted to mental hospitals for the first time with a diagnosis of schizophrenia, they typically hold jobs that are lower in social class than one would expect from their family backgrounds. This suggests that mental problems caused these individuals to drift downward in social class .

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Most research, however, suggests that social stress better explains the link between social class and mental illness. For example, those diagnosed with schizophrenia are more likely than others to have grown up in lower-class homes and to have held stressful, noisy, hazardous, and physically uncomfortable jobs even before their first admissions to mental hospitals. Recently, this theory has been vividly reinforced by reports of extremely high rates of mental illness among returning war veterans, most of whom come from poor or working-class families.

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