Mental Health and Disabilities

Learning Outcomes

  • Explain mental health and disability issues as they relate to society in the United States

Mental Health and Disability

The treatment received by those defined as mentally ill or disabled varies greatly from country to country. In the post-millennial United States, those of us who have never experienced such a disadvantage take for granted the rights our society guarantees for each citizen. We do not think about the relatively recent nature of the protections, unless, of course, we know someone constantly inconvenienced by the lack of accommodations or misfortune of suddenly experiencing a temporary disability.

Mental Health

People with mental disorders (a condition that makes it more difficult to cope with everyday life) and people with mental illness (a severe, lasting mental disorder that requires long-term treatment) experience a wide range of effects. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), the United States has over 50 million adults with mental illness or mental disorder, or 20 percent of the total adult population. Of these, 13 million have what is considered serious mental illness or mental disorder (5 percent of the adult population); serious mental illness is that which causes impairment or disability (National Institute of Mental Health 2021). Finally, 16.5 percent of children aged 6-17 experienced mental illness or disorder (National Alliance on Mental Illness 2021).

The most common mental disorders in the United States are anxiety disorders, to include generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and specific phobias. Almost 18 percent of U.S. adults are likely to be affected in a single year, and 28 percent are likely to be affected over the course of a lifetime (Anxiety and Depression Institute of America 2021).It is important to distinguish between occasional feelings of anxiety and a true anxiety disorder. Anxiety is a normal reaction to stress that we all feel at some point, but anxiety disorders are feelings of worry and fearfulness that last for months at a time, that disrupt normal life. Anxiety disorders are also closely related to obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and trauma and stress-related disorders such as posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The NIMH reports that the prevalence of any anxiety disorder is higher for females than for males, estimating the prevalence at 23.4% and 14.3%, respectively. Anxiety is a prominent mental condition; one in three U.S. adults experience any anxiety disorder at some point throughout their lives.

The second most common mental disorders in the United States are mood disorders; roughly 10 percent of U.S. adults are likely to be affected yearly, while 21 percent are likely to be affected over the course of a lifetime (National Institute of Mental Health 2017). Mood disorders are the most common causes of illness-related hospitalization in the U.S. (Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality 2021). Major mood disorders are depression, bipolar disorder, and dysthymic disorder. Like anxiety, depression might seem like something that everyone experiences at some point, and it is true that most people feel sad or “blue” at times in their lives. A true depressive episode, however, is more than just feeling sad for a short period. It is a long-term, debilitating illness that usually needs treatment to cure. Bipolar disorder is characterized by dramatic shifts in energy and mood, often affecting the individual’s ability to carry out day-to-day tasks. Bipolar disorder used to be called manic depression because of the way people would swing between manic and depressive episodes. As with anxiety disorders, mood disorders are more prevalent among females than among males, and over 20% of adults in the U.S. experience a mood disorder at some point throughout their lifetime.

Depending on what definition is used, there is some overlap between mood disorders and personality disorders, which affect 9 percent of people in the United States yearly. A personality disorder is an enduring and inflexible pattern of long duration leading to significant distress or impairment, that is not due to use of substances or another medical condition. In other words, personality disorders cause people to behave in ways that are seen as abnormal to society but seem normal to them. Unlike with other types of mental disorders, there is no significant gender difference, although 84% of individuals with personality disorders also had one or more other mental disorders.

The diagnosis and classification regarding personality disorders has been evolving and is somewhat controversial. To guide diagnosis and potential treatments of mental disorders, the American Psychological Association publishes the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual on Mental Disorders (DSM). Experts working on the latest version initially proposed changing the categories of personality disorders. However, the final publication retains the original ten categories, but contains an alternate/emerging approach for classifying them. This evolution demonstrates the challenges and the wide array of treating conditions, and also represents areas of difference between theorists, practitioners, governing bodies, and other stakeholders. As discussed in the Sociological Research chapter, study and investigation is a diligent and multi-dimensional process. As the diagnostic application evolves, we will see how their definitions help scholars across disciplines understand the intersection of health issues and how they are defined by social institutions and cultural norms.

Link to Learning

Interested in seeing more statistics about mental health or specific mental disorders/illnesses? Visit the NIMH statistics website.

You can also watch this CrashCourse video “Personality Disorders” covering the types of personality disorders.

White, oval-shaped pills next to a pill bottle are shown here.

Figure 1. Medication is a common option for children with ADHD. (Photo courtesy of Deviation56/Wikimedia Commons)

Another commonly diagnosed mental disorder is Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), which affects 9 percent of U.S. children and 4 percent of adults on a lifetime basis (Danielson 2018). Since ADHD is one of the most common childhood disorders, it is often incorrectly considered only a disease found in children. But ADHD can be a serious issue for adults who either had been diagnosed as children or who are diagnosed as adults. ADHD is marked by difficulty paying attention, difficulty controlling behavior, and hyperactivity. As a result, it can lead to educational and behavioral issues in children, success issues in college, and challenges in workplace and family life. However, there is some social debate over whether such drugs are being overprescribed (American Psychological Association). Consider the opioid crisis in relation to this; do we begin over-prescribing drugs targeted at children, and perhaps create a dependency and cycle? A significant difficulty in diagnosis, treatment, and societal understanding of ADHD is that it changes in expression based on a wide range of factors, including age (CHADD 2020). Contrary to what is observed with many other types of mental disorders, ADHD is more prevalent among males than among females.

Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) encompass a group of developmental brain disorders that are characterized by “deficits in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication, and engagement in repetitive behaviors or interests” (National Institute of Mental Health). As of 2021, the CDC estimates that 1 in 54 children has an autism spectrum disorder. Beyond the very high incidence, the rate of diagnosis has been increasing steadily as awareness became more widespread. In 2005, the rate was 1 in 166 children; in 2012 it was 1 in 88 children. The rate of increase and awareness has assisted diagnosis and treatment, but autism is a cause of significant fear among parents and families. Because of its impact on relationships and especially verbal communication, children with autism (and their parents) can be shunned, grossly misunderstood, and mistreated. For example, people with an autism spectrum disorder who cannot verbalize are often assumed to be unintelligent, or are sometimes left out of conversations or activities because others feel they cannot participate. Parents may be reluctant to let their children play with or associate with children with ASD. Adults with ASD go through many of the same misconceptions and mistreatments, such as being denied opportunities or being made to feel unwelcome (Applied Behavior Analysis).

Try It


A blue handicapped accessible sign is shown here.

Figure 2. The handicapped accessible sign indicates that people with disabilities can access the facility. The Americans with Disabilities Act requires that access be provided to everyone. (Photo courtesy of Ltljltlj/Wikimedia Commons)

Disability refers to a reduction in one’s ability to perform everyday tasks. The World Health Organization makes a distinction between the various terms used to describe handicaps that’s important to the sociological perspective. They use the term impairment to describe the physical limitations, while reserving the term disability to refer to the social limitation.

Before the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990, people in the United States with disabilities were often excluded from opportunities and social institutions many of us take for granted. This occurred not only through employment and other kinds of discrimination, but also through casual acceptance by most people in the United States of a world designed for the convenience of the able-bodied. Imagine being in a wheelchair and trying to use a sidewalk without the benefit of wheelchair-accessible curbs. Imagine as a blind person trying to access information without the widespread availability of Braille. Imagine having limited motor control and being faced with a difficult-to-grasp round door handle. Issues like these are what the ADA tries to address. Ramps on sidewalks, Braille instructions, and more accessible door levers are all accommodations to help people with disabilities.

People with disabilities can be stigmatized by their illnesses. Stigmatization means their identity is spoiled; they are labeled as different, discriminated against, and sometimes even shunned. They are labeled (as an interactionist might point out) and ascribed a master status (as a functionalist might note), becoming “the blind girl” or “the boy in the wheelchair” instead of someone afforded a full identity by society. This can be especially true for people who are disabled due to mental illness or disorders.

As discussed in the section on mental health, many mental health disorders can be debilitating and can affect a person’s ability to cope with everyday life as well as their social interactions. This can affect social status, housing, and especially employment. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (2019), people with a disability had a higher rate of unemployment than people without a disability in 2018—8 percent compared to 3.7 percent. This unemployment rate refers only to people actively looking for a job. In fact, four out of five people with a disability are considered “out of the labor force;” that is, they do not have jobs and are not looking for them. The combination of this population and the high unemployment rate leads to an employment-population ratio of 19.1 percent among those with disabilities. The employment-population ratio for people without disabilities was much higher, at 65.9 percent (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics 2019).[1]

Obesity: The Last Acceptable Prejudice

A large man is shown here sitting on a beach next to a young girl.

Figure 3. Obesity is considered the last acceptable social stigma. (Photo courtesy of Kyle May/flickr)

Many people who see a person with obesity may make negative assumptions about them based on their size. According to a study from the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, large people are the object of “widespread negative stereotypes that overweight and obese persons are lazy, unmotivated, lacking in self-discipline, less competent, noncompliant, and sloppy” (Puhl and Heuer 2009).

Historically, both in the United States and elsewhere, it was considered acceptable to discriminate against people based on prejudiced opinions. Even after slavery was abolished through the 13th Amendment in 1865, institutionalized racism and prejudice against Black people persisted. In an example of stereotype interchangeability, the same insults that are flung today at the overweight and obese population (lazy, for instance) have been flung at various racial and ethnic groups in earlier history.

Why is it considered acceptable to feel prejudice toward—even to hate—people with obesity? Puhl and Heuer suggest that these feelings stem from the perception that obesity is preventable through self-control, better diet, and more exercise. Highlighting this contention is the fact that studies have shown that people’s perceptions of obesity are more positive when they think the obesity was caused by non-controllable factors like biology (a thyroid condition, for instance) or genetics.

Health experts emphasize that obesity is a disease, and that it is not the result of simple overeating. There are often a number of contributing factors that make it more difficult to avoid. Even with some understanding of non-controllable factors that might affect obesity, people with obesity are still subject to stigmatization. Puhl and Heuer’s study is one of many that document discrimination at work, in the media, and even in the medical profession. Large people are less likely to get into college than thinner people, and they are less likely to succeed at work. Recent research finds that discrimination against obese people is still pervasive in employment.[2]

Stigmatization of people with obesity comes in many forms, from the seemingly benign to the potentially illegal. In movies and television shows, overweight people are often portrayed negatively, or as stock characters who are the butt of jokes. One study found that in children’s movies “obesity was equated with negative traits (evil, unattractive, unfriendly, cruel) in 64 percent of the most popular children’s videos. In 72 percent of the videos, characters with thin bodies had desirable traits, such as kindness or happiness” (Hines and Thompson 2007). In movies and television for adults, the negative portrayal is often meant to be funny. Think about the way you have seen obese people portrayed in movies and on television; now think of any other subordinate group being openly denigrated in such a way. It is difficult to find a parallel example.

Think It Over

  • Do you know anyone with a mental disorder? How does it affect his or her life?

Try It


anxiety disorders:
feelings of worry and fearfulness that last for months at a time
a reduction in one’s ability to perform everyday tasks; the World Health Organization notes that this is a social limitation
the physical limitations a less-able person faces
mood disorders:
long-term, debilitating illnesses like depression and bipolar disorder
personality disorders:
disorders that cause people to behave in ways that are seen as abnormal to society but seem normal to them
the act of spoiling someone’s identity; they are labeled as different, discriminated against, and sometimes even shunned due to an illness or disability


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  1. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2019). Persons with a Disability: Labor Force Characteristics Summary. Retrieved from
  2. Stuart W. Flint, Martin Čadek, Sonia C. Codreanu, Vanja Ivić, Colene Zomer, Amalia Gomoiu Front Psychol. 2016. Obesity Discrimination in the Recruitment Process: “You’re Not Hired!” 7: 647. Published online 2016 May 3. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00647