Social deprivation is the reduction or prevention of culturally normal interaction between an individual and the rest of society. This social deprivation is included in a broad network of correlated factors that contribute to social exclusion; these factors include mental illness, poverty, poor education, and low socioeconomic status.
The term "social deprivation" is slightly ambiguous and lacks a concrete definition. There are several important aspects that are consistently found within research on the subject. With social deprivation one may have limited access to the social world due to factors such as low socioeconomic status or poor education. The socially deprived may experience "a deprivation of basic capabilities due to a lack of freedom, rather than merely low income." This lack of freedoms may include reduced opportunity, political voice, or dignity.
Part of the confusion in defining social deprivation seems to stem from its apparent similarity to social exclusion. Social deprivation may be correlated with or contribute to social exclusion, which is when a member in a particular society is ostracized by other members of the society. The excluded member is denied access to the resources that allow for healthy social, economic, and political interaction. Pierson has identified five key factors that set social exclusion in motion – poverty, lack of access to jobs, denial of social supports or peer networks, exclusion from services; and negative attitude of the local neighbourhood. It is also associated with abusive caretaking, developmental delay, mental illness and subsequent suicide.
Although a person may be socially deprived or excluded, they will not necessarily develop mental illness or perpetuate the cycle of deprivation. Such groups and individuals may have completely normal development and retain a strong sense of community.
Research on social deprivation is based primarily on observational and self-report measures. This has provided an understanding of how social deprivation is linked to lifespan development and mental illness.
A critical period refers to the window of time during which a human needs to experience a particular environmental stimulus in order for proper development to occur. In instances of social deprivation, particularly for children, social experiences tend to be less varied and development may be delayed or hindered.
In severe cases of social deprivation or exclusion, children may not be exposed to normal social experiences. Language provides a good example of the importance of periods in development. If a child has limited exposure to language before a certain age, language is difficult or impossible to obtain. Social behaviours and certain physical developments also have critical periods, often resisting rehabilitation or later exposure to proper stimuli.
Feral children provide an example of the effects of severe social deprivation during critical developmental periods. There have been several recorded cases in history of children emerging from the wilderness in late childhood or early adolescence, having presumably been abandoned at an early age. These children had no language skills, limited social understanding, and could not be rehabilitated. Genie, a contemporary victim of social deprivation, had severely limited human contact from 20 months until 13.5 years of age. At the time of her discovery by social workers, Genie was unable to talk, chew solids foods, stand or walk properly, or control bodily functions and impulsive behaviours. Although Genie was able to learn individual words, she was never able to speak grammatical English. These children lacked important social and environmental conditions in childhood and were subsequently unable to develop into normal, functioning adults.
Social deprivation in early childhood development can also cause neurocognitive deficits in the brain. Positron emission tomography (PET) scans reveal drastic reductions in areas such as the prefrontal cortex, temporal lobe, amygdala, hippocampus, and orbitofrontal gyrus of socially deprived children. These areas are associated with higher order cognitive processing such as memory, emotion, thinking, and rationalization. Further damage occurs in the white matter of the uncinate fasciculus. This structure is responsible for providing a major pathway of communication between areas for higher cognitive and emotional functioning, such as the amygdala and frontal lobe. Having damage to these specific structures and their connections decreases cortical activity, thus inhibiting the ability to properly interact and relate to others.
Research also suggests that socially deprived children have imbalances with hormones associated with affiliative and positive social behaviour, specifically oxytocin and vasopressin. Institutionalized children showed a marked decrease in vasopressin and oxytocin levels while interacting with their caregiver compared to controls. Failure to receive proper social interaction at a young age disrupts normal neuroendocrine system developments that mediate social behaviour.
A lack of social networking predisposes people to mental illness. Mental illness can be attributed to instability within the individual. Society provides a sense of stability and socially deprived people fail to fit within this social structure. It becomes even more difficult for a person to fit in once labelled mentally ill because they now also carry a social stigma and receive a negative social attitude from the community.
Social deprivation is difficult to dissect because certain issues that may be considered outcomes of social exclusion may also be factored into causes of social stigma. Outcomes of adult social deprivation may include young parenthood, adult homelessness, lack of qualifications, or residence in social housing – yet all of these factors may cause society to treat the individual with disdain or intolerance, thus furthering their exclusion. These reciprocal influences can become an unfortunate cycle for an individual who requires social or financial assistance to survive, particularly in a society which excludes those who are deemed abnormal.
This apparent cycle of alienation can cause feelings of helplessness where the only foreseeable resolution may be suicide. There is an identified link between severe mental illness and subsequent suicide. One predictor of suicide is a lack of social integration. Dating back to the late nineteenth century, Durkheim illustrated that highly integrated societies with strong social bonds and a high degree of social cohesion have low suicide rates. Social integration consists of many sources such as religious, social, and political memberships. Relationships within the community and other individuals can create a better quality of life that decreases the chance of becoming mentally ill and of committing suicide.
A lack of equal distribution of resources is fuelled by an increasing economic gap. The focus of power toward the upper statuses creates disparity and loss of privileges within the lower class. The lower socioeconomic statuses, in turn, become socially deprived based on the lack of access to freedoms. Loss of power is associated with a lack of opportunity and political voice, which restricts participation in the community. Non-participation in the labour market and lack of access to basic services reduces inclusion of social relations. Social relations consist of events such as social activities, support in times of need, and ability to "get out and about." For these children, initial exposure to such events is incorporated within the education system.
Although there are many factors involved in social deprivation, research has indicated that the school system’s intervention can allow at-risk children the chance to improve their status. A positive educational experience plays an important role in allowing such children to advance in society. The High/Scope Perry Preschool Project was implemented to research the results of providing preschool programs to socioeconomically disadvantaged children. A population of at-risk children were identified and randomly assigned to two groups: program or no-program. The ultimate goal was improving the selected children's quality of life through the educational system and later on as adults. Compared to students not enrolled in the program, students who were enrolled completed a longer high-school education, scored higher on tests of scholastic achievement and intellectual performance, had lower lifetime criminal-arrest rates, and reported significantly higher monthly earnings as adults. These findings indicate that children who are experiencing non-educational social deprivation may benefit from a sensitive, positive educational experience.
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