Monday, March 19, 2012

Thoughts on the Medicalization of Society

In The Medicalization of Society, James Conrad explores a societal shift which I have noticed in my lifetime, but never really knew how to define. According to Conrad, the concept of medicalization is defined as "a process by which nonmedical problems become defined and treated as medical problems, usually in terms of illness and disorders". For example, disorders such as depression or ADHD were not traditionally considered diseases, but are now being treated medically. I will say that I have always been critical of this movement. However, after reading Conrad's dissection of the topic in his book, I am a bit conflicted about my opinion.

Perhaps it's because I was raised with the "deal with it" school of thought, but I've always considered the shift towards medicalization a bit spoiled. As a child, I was taught to think of medicine as a last resort or "easy way out" for dealing with colds, mild fevers, etc. Instead food, rest, and other remedies targetted towards overall health were preferred. (One of my friends almost never gets sick and attributes his resilience to the fact that he was never allowed to take cold medicine as a child.)

It's not that I'm against the idea of medicine, I just feel like idea of labeling an ailment as a "disease" instantly frees the person from responsibility. For example, I have been tempted to say that I was "depressed" before, but in reality all I needed to do was go outside and blow off some steam or find a new hobby. I am sensitive to the fact that chronic depression is a very real and serious concern for some, but that's not what I'm talking about. What scares me is how easy it is to dismiss discomfort as "disease".

In the first chapter of Conrad's book, he discusses the evolving roles of physicians and medical authority. He cites the the widespread influence of physicians as a driving force behind medicalization. He states thats that his relationship is evident in the medicalization of "hyperactivity, menopause, child abuse, and childbirth, among others." This point made me redefine my idea of medical intervention. Maybe medical treatment does not always relieve the patient from responsibilty, but sometimes actually helps them realize that they are ultimately responsible for their own health. (I think this is true in the case of obesity and drug related disorders.) Perhaps the modern physician's role in society is not to treat problems traditionally thought of as disease, but rather to provide support for a wide range of discomforts.

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