Date of Award

Spring 1984

Project Type


Program or Major


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Two research findings on sex roles and mental disorder have become a firm part of the knowledge base in the sociology of mental health and illness. The first of these is that, since around 1950, females consistently report higher overall rates of mental disorder than males. A second, related finding is that higher rates of female illness are due to the differential impact of family based statuses on the mental health of men and women.

It is the contention of this research that asking which sex is more mentally ill is the wrong question. Further, it is suggested that the tenacity of beliefs about "greater female mental illness" and the "vulnerability of married women" is due to both a series of methodological and conceptual problems, and the fit between these beliefs and the prevailing values of a number of interested parties.

Data used in this research is from a number of sources. First, epidemiological studies of mental illness from the United States and Canada, 1955 and 1983; second, National Institute of Mental Health treatment data, 1960-1981; third, historical evidence on the expanding view of mental illness since World War II; and, fourth, data on demoralization from a sample of 373 users and non-users of mental health agencies.

The major findings are as follows: the overrepresentation of women as "mentally ill" is due to a massive expansion in the concept of mental illness since around 1950. Second, a higher rate of mental health problems among married women shows up only in treatment populations. Studies using treatment samples fail to consider the confounding of true effects on mental health from the effects of help-seeking behavior. In both epidemiological and sample data examined in this research, there was no evidence for a sex-marital status interaction effect on mental health among non-treatment populations.

Lastly, social role explanations of sex differences in mental health are not useful when controlling for the effects of economic variables. The best predictor of sex differences in mental health in this sample data is a sex-social class interaction effect. Low socioeconomic women report the lowest morale regardless of marital status or the family roles performed.