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The Sick Role: How Are You Supposed to Act When You Are Sick?

The word "sick" in teal with a blue background

So when you become sick, how does your culture say you are supposed to act? When you are sick, people don’t expect you to do the same things as when you were healthy. There are different expectations when you are sick. This is called the sick role. This concept was created by a medical sociologist, but Medical Anthropology studies it, too.

The Sick Role

If a person takes on the sick role, two things happen. First, they are exempted from certain responsibilities, and second, they are also obligated to do certain things.

Let’s look first at the exemption of certain responsibilities. The ill person is not expected to do their usual things. For example, a stay-at-home mother who is ill may not be expected to clean the house or cook dinner for the family. And someone who works outside the home is not expected to continue working–they are allowed to stay home and rest. Also, the ill person is not expected to be responsible for their condition. The disease they have is seen as outside that person’s control.

Now let’s look at the things a sick person is obligated to do. An ill person is obligated to recover as quickly as possible, and only be in the sick role temporarily. A sick person is also obligated to cooperate with medical providers, and follow their advice.

Sick role. A woman in bed wiping her nose with a tissue.

Limitations of the Sick Role Concept

One limitation with the idea of the sick role is that not all illnesses are temporary. With chronic diseases, the ill person will not recover and they will be in the role for a long time. And with some chronic diseases, the sick person may still be expected to continue their normal roles in society. For example, people with mental illness may still be expected to fulfill normal roles in society, and there may be fewer exemptions of responsibilities.

Another limitation with the sick role concept is that in some cases, people ARE considered responsible for their disease. For example, in American culture, people with AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases are seen as responsible for their illness.

Learn More

Think about the last time you were sick. Were you still expected to do your normal activities, or were you considered exempt from these responsibilities? Were you considered to blame for your illness? Were you expected to see a doctor and get better as soon as possible?

If you want to learn more about the sick role, check out this encyclopedia article, “Illness and Sick-Role Behavior.”

Thanks for reading!