Image: A white woman sits on a bed in pajamas, her arms clutched around her midsection in pain. Image courtesy of pixabay, Pixabay License.

How does pain affect the well-being of an individual? What about the well-being of a society?

In a recent article, Anna Zajacova, Hanna Grol-Prokopczyk, and Zachary Zimmer argue that chronic pain is a social issue with consequences beyond medicine

In 2016, the CDC estimated that 20% of U.S. adults experience chronic pain. Chronic pain is a distinct phenomenon of suffering and disability that has significant mental and physical impacts. Chronic pain is different from acute pain from a temporary injury, such as a broken bone or a burn. A person who experiences chronic pain is more likely to suffer from anxiety or depression, and twice as likely to commit suicide. 

Chronic pain disproportionately impacts certain groups. Overall, women experience slightly higher levels of pain than men. People with lower socioeconomic status experience significantly more chronic pain. For instance, individuals without a high school diploma experience three times the amount of severe pain than college graduates. These findings demonstrate that pain is connected to broader social inequalities and conditions. 

The seemingly private experience of pain has wide-ranging social dimensions and implications that require further study. Our suffering may be individually felt, but it must also be collectively understood, especially if we are to make real progress in advancing the health and well-being of all.

This piece is cross-posted over at Discoveries on The Society Pages

Image: A black woman sits on the floor, leaning against a sofa, in a low-lit room. Her head is in her hands, obscuring her face. Courtesy of pixabay, Pixabay License.

Originally published April 1, 2021

Recent sociological research documents a broad-based increase in mental health treatment-seeking in the United States. Access to such care remains unequal, however, presenting  real and persistent challenges to those in need. Sociologists, and other social scientists, offer important information about these inequalities and the barriers to equitable mental health care.

Over the past few decades there has been growing concern that people are being “overtreated” for mental health issues given increasing rates of mental health treatment and diagnosis in the population. Nevertheless, there are still many people with mental health conditions who are being “undertreated.” Specifically, there are large gaps between the number of people who have a diagnosable disorder and the number of people who actually receive treatment, particularly for serious mental health issues such as schizophrenia or substance abuse disorder.

Research in the sociology of mental health has often focused on the stigma around seeking or receiving mental health care, particularly for marginalized racial or ethnic groups. In fact, white men may be the most likely to have negative perceptions of care when compared to other demographic groups, as Ojeda and Bergstresser report. As the stigma related to mental illness decreases overall, additional research is needed to examine how, why, and for whom this stigma persists.

Access to mental health care is also limited by mental health practitioners and the mental health care system. In a recent experimental audit study, Heather Kugelmass found that patients with less education and black patients were less likely to receive a response when they sought help from a mental health care provider. In addition, Lincoln and colleagues found that patients with lower levels of literacy found it more challenging to navigate the mental health care system, struggling to fill out paperwork and make health-care decisions along with their care provider. Both the structure of mental health care, and the actions of mental health care providers, can create inequality for patients even after they have decided to seek care.

More people are accessing mental health care now than ever before. As the stigma around care decreases, and more people are seeking care, it is particularly important to ensure equitable access. By shedding light on how factors like disability, class, and race affect mental health care, social scientists can ultimately play a role in addressing inequities and alleviating mental distress.