Why do people with mental distress have poor social outcomes? Four lessons from the capabilities approach.

Brunner, R. 2017. “Why do people with mental distress have poor social outcomes? Four lessons from the capabilities approach.” Social Science and Medicine 191: 160-167.

Macro level data indicate that people experiencing mental distress experience poor health, social and economic outcomes. The sociology of mental health has a series of dominant competing explanations of the mechanisms at personal, social and structural levels that generate these poor outcomes. This article explains the limitations of these approaches and takes up the challenge of Hopper (2007) who in this journal proposed the capabilities approach as a means of normatively reconceptualising the experiences of people with mental distress, with a renewed focus on agency, equality and genuine opportunity. Using an innovative methodology to operationalise the capabilities approach, findings from an in-depth qualitative study exploring the lived experiences of twenty-two people with recent inpatient experience of psychiatric units in Scotland are presented. The paper demonstrates that the capabilities approach can be applied to reconceptualise how unjust social outcomes happen for this social group. It distinguishes how the results of using a capabilities approach to analysis are distinct from established dominant analytical frameworks through four added features: a focus on actual lived outcomes; the role of capabilities as well as functionings; being normative; and incorporating agency. The capabilities approach is found to be an operationalisable framework; the findings have implications for professionals and systems in the specific context of mental health; and the capabilities approach offers a fertile basis for normative studies in wider aspects of health and wellbeing.

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