Individuating the Self: Identity Formation and Mental Illness

Identity formation is as complex and unique as the number of different theories that attempt to describe it. Many people believe in the structuralist idea of identity formation (Prevos, The Web of Cultural). That is, many people believe that social constructs create our identity. We are defined by our social class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, nationality or a combination thereof. Many of you who have clicked on this article may be expecting a conversation on this modernist idea of identity formation as this is the most talked about.

However, there is another school of thought in regards to identity formation known as the interactionist idea. The interactionist school of thought says that we as humans can reflect on society and essentially create our own identities regardles
s of social boundaries (Prevos, The Web of Cultural). This postmodern idea is rarely discussed, but many intellects who study identity formation would fall somewhere in the middle of these two trains thought. Therefore, the structuralist and interactionist trains of thought work together to form our true identities which are everchanging. It is as Prevos states, “[identity is] like a dog chasing its’ own tail.”

Keeping the above in mind, we can now add in the variable of mental illness. It was argued by Erving Goffman that labeling an individual as a mental patient alters the personality (Prevos, The Influence of Mental). This basic concept is known as labeling theory (Blackstone, 2013). In short, this theory states that a person who is labeled as mentally ill will label themselves as mentally ill and within this label take on all the socially constructed stereotypes associated with the identity. Thus, the stigma of being mentally ill creates a negative impact on identity both socially and on an individual level. Yet, for many the negative impact of stigma can be a call to rise-up and challenge the assumptions and stereotypes associated with mental illness. For example, research suggests that those who disclose their mental illness have a better overall quality of life regardless of stigma (Blackstone, 2013). This is because disclosure can give people empowerment and satisfaction and can lead to education for those who are not familiar with mental illnesses. This is especially true when mental illness is disclosed in a group therapy type of environment. Thus, we can see once again that identity formation depends on individual reflection of societal norms and society itself.

Our identities are always changing. We rely on social constructs to define who we are such as nationality, gender, ethnicity, or a combination thereof. However, we can also be introspective towards these societal norms. Mental illnesses are quite complex in nature. They are almost as complex as the number of theories that describe identity formation. Yet, considering the mixture of modern and postmodern theories of identity mental illness impacts a person in the same way any other social category may: socially and individually.    

Works Cited

Blackstone, Kerri Lynn, “Stigma and Identity Formation in Young Adults with Chronic Mental  Illness: An Exploration through Personal Narrative and Art-Making” (2013). LMU/LLS Theses  and Dissertations. Paper 32.

Prevos, P. (2005, May 17). The Influence of Mental Disorders on Personal Identity. Retrieved  March 23, 2017, from

Prevos, P. (2004, August 23). The Web of Cultural Identity: How we are who we are.  Retrieved March 23, 2017, from

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