The Role of Society’s Expectations in Mental Health

The Role of Society’s Expectations in Mental Health

“All the worlds a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits, and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts.
– William Shakespeare

When the great playwright said this, he was discussing just what we’re about to talk about today; social expectations.

For a moment, consider the many roles you play on a daily basis. One moment, you’re somebody’s sibling. The next, you’re someones best friend. Then you go to bed next to someone who refers to you as the love of their life.

You have adapted yourself into each of these roles. And as you go about your day-to-day life, you behave in a certain manner in order to live up to these roles.

This behavior is a product of social normality [1]. The idea that our conduct must be of a certain nature in order to appear conventional (or, as I like to put it, sane).

It’s fair to say many of us struggle with the expectations of social normality. Our brains simply aren’t wired to always appear conventional. Some of us feel an overabundance of fear. Some go through manic episodes we have no control over.

Yet, day-by-day, we continue to try to live by these expectations.

This article takes an in-depth look at these social normalizes and their affect on mental health. At the end, we invite you to ask further questions.

What Are Social Norms?

A social norm is as simple as keeping your mouth closed when you have food in your mouth or as complicated as completing all your homework for all your classes in a prompt manner.

These expectations are unwritten and undisclosed rules about how you’re supposed to behave [2].

By not behaving in under these norms, you’ll find people often have a more difficult time understanding you. Furthermore, you’re not as accepted in social groups and events.

Why is this?

The simple explanation is due to these social norms, people will have a clearer comprehension of who you are and predicting your manner of conduct. For example, a woman dating a social normal man already knows he’s going to pay for dinner on their first date.

People feel comfortable knowing they can understand and predict even a complete stranger. And that has a great deal to do with why these social norms are so powerful; they make other people comfortable.

The Complexity of Social Norms

Still, it should be noted, social norms aren’t exactly the same depending on your circumstance.

For example, when you go to your grandmothers house, it’s most likely you’re not going to act the same way you do with your friends.

Yet, though your behavior does change when you’re around certain people, it sticks to that set of unwritten rules. When you go from one social group to another, your conduct changes in accordance with your circumstance.

This is the way our society is governed [3]. Without social norms, we’d have a lot of difficulty getting around with an assortment of different people. Therefore, to some extent, they are necessary.

And those who oblige to social normality are, to some extent, simply looking out for themselves.

Social Norms and Mental Health

When it comes to mental health – preferably, mental illness – there remains a strong stigma attached to those who suffer from it [4]. And this is prominently due to social norms.

To some degree, our society still promotes the following stigmas:

  • The perception that those with a mental disorder are more dangerous
  • The idea that people of mental illness aren’t as capable of marriage or employment
  • The sense that friends, co-workers, and family members should look down upon those who face mental illness
  • That mental illness is an excuse

Of course, not everyone of a mental health condition is going to receive this stigma. Furthermore, it should be granted that society has been working towards diminishing such a stigma.

Yet, the biggest reason it continues to have difficulty is due to the fact that mental illness goes against social normality [5].

In fact, social normality is believed to be part of the reason mental illness exists in the first place.

Mental Health as an Indirect Construction

In his essay “Mental Disorder and the Indirect Construction of Social Facts,” Raphael van Riel had said [6]:

It is a widely shared assumption among psychiatrists and philosophers of psychiatry alike that the social-cultural environment in some sense or another shapes mental disorders, a claim that, today, also objectivists about mental disorder happily admit.

In order to get a clearer sense of how this might be, let’s look at some key symptoms of depression as an example:

  • Continuous feelings of sadness, emptiness, and anxiousness
  • Decreased energy
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Feelings of guilt, hopelessness, and worthlessness

At one time or another, everyone is bound to feel the above symptoms to some extent. If we lost a job, we may feel hopeless. If we were rejected by a love interest, we might feel worthless. If we found out our mother died, it’s natural for us to lose some energy.

Life has its ways of slowing down. Yet, most people’s lives find a way of picking back up again. People with depression (or major depressive disorder), on the other hand, have persistent negative feelings. So much so, the brain physically changes [7].

Ultimately, this brain change lacks social normality. Due to this, people of depression are bound to find themselves in a cycle where they’re trying to figure out a society that doesn’t accept them.

What Can We Do?

As Riel mentions in his essay:

Recent data suggests that there is cultural variation among the ways in which people experience their conditions, and that cultural background has an impact on how clinicians weigh the relevance of symptoms in the diagnostic process.

It’s vital we end the stigma towards mental health simply so everyone has an opportunity in this world.

In order to move forward as a society, we must identify mental health as a social norm. Though that’s a bold statement, the truth of the matter is, if we continue to look at it as something abnormal, everyone facing mental health will be pushed further and further away from society.

Your Questions and Comments

Have further questions regarding the effects of social expectations on your mental health? We invite you to ask them in the comments section below.

If you have a story you’d like to share about your experience with social expectations and mental health, we’d also love to hear from you.

We reply to each comment in a prompt and personal manner.


[1] Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Social Norms

[2] Columbia University School of Behavioral Sciences: Social norms and social influence

[3] Journal of Civil SocietyThe Effects of ‘Social Expectations’ on the Development of Civil Society in Japan

[4] PubMed: The role of perceived norms in the stigmatization of mental illness.

[5] Pitzer College: The Stigma of Mental Illness

[6] Journal of Social Ontology: Mental Disorder and the Indirect Construction of Social Facts

[7] Harvard Medical School: What Causes Depression?

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