Drawing the line: The cultural cartography of utilization recommendations for mental health problems

Sigrun Olafsdottir*, Bernice A. Pescosolido

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

21 Citations (Scopus)


In the 1990s, sociologists began to rethink the failure of utilization models to explain whether and why individuals accessed formal treatment systems. This effort focused on reconceptualizing the underlying assumptions and processes that shaped utilization patterns. While we have built a better understanding of how social networks structure pathways to care and how disadvantaged sociocultural groups face substantial barriers to treatment, we have less understanding of the larger cultural context in which individuals recognize and respond to symptoms. Drawing from recent innovations in the sociology of culture, we develop the concept of "cultural mapping" to describe if and how individuals discriminate among different available sources of formal treatment. Using data from the 1996 Mental Health Module of the General Social Survey, we compare Americans'willingness to recommend providers in the general medical and specialty mental health sectors. The results indicate that, despite unrealistically high levels of endorsement, individuals do discriminate between providers based on their evaluation of the problem, underlying causes, and likely consequences. While perceived severity leads individuals to suggest any type of formal care, problems attributed to biological causes are directed to general or specialty medical providers (doctors, psychiatrists, and hospitals); those matching symptoms for schizophrenia or seen as eliciting violence are allocated to the specialty mental health sector (psychiatry, mental hospital); and those seen as being caused by stress are sent to nonmedical mental health providers (i.e., counselors). These findings help to explain inconsistencies in previous utilization studies, and they suggest the critical importance of maintaining a dialogue between medical sociology and the sociology of culture.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)228-244
Number of pages17
JournalJournal of Health and Social Behavior
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2009


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