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A comprehensive approach to “attitudes towards contingency” in liberal-individualistic societies : the case of mental health problems hindering autonomy

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Autonomy as mental health

An EU team investigated public attitudes towards mental health and autonomy. Work identified perception of ‘good’ mental illness, where patients deserve recovery, and ‘bad’, where patients fail to meet social expectations.


So-called liberal-individualistic (LI) societies generally emphasise the individual over the group. In such societies, autonomy is required and considered evidence of mental health. The EU-funded ATCMENTALHEATH (A comprehensive approach to “attitudes towards contingency” in liberal-individualistic societies: The case of mental health problems hindering autonomy) project examined public attitudes towards contingency (ATC). The term means people’s ability to return to normality after a mental health disruption. The study examined ATC in the context of LI societies. Team members tested whether the social requirements of autonomy are upheld when people face personal crises. Researchers examined people’s responses, on symbolical and operative levels, to such crises. The key question concerned the kinds of ATC mentally diseased or psychologically distressed people resort to in societies where autonomy is required. Researchers interviewed 50 psychiatric patients at two institutions in Belgium and France. The study assessed how the patients made use of language games to return to normal. Patients invoked various entities (including the brain, their childhood and enchanted entities) to explain their experiences. Different configurations produced various ATC that emphasised autonomous behaviour. Asking patients about the ways they imagined their futures illustrated two points. Patients hoped for disappearance of their troubles and a return of their previous ability to cope with life independently. More generally, the research also demonstrated that mental health problems are discussed in terms of how they jeopardise being oneself, normal activity and correct socialisation. Such effects conflict with LI societies’ requirement for autonomy. Secondly, results showed that such societies differentiate between ‘good’ diseased people, who deserve recovery, and ‘bad’ diseased people, who fail to meet social expectations. Results led to several peer-reviewed journal publications, plus general books and articles. Team members also conducted several talks and press interviews. The consortium hosted a major symposium on the study themes in Brussels during September 2016. The gathering examined the lives of people suffering chronic mental disorders, both before and after therapy. The project’s outcomes shed new light on the sociology of mental health, potentially assisting both therapists and patients.


Autonomy, mental health, liberal-individualistic, ATCMENTALHEATH, attitudes towards contingency

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