Abnormal vs Normal

Any attempt to define psychological abnormality often raises as many questions as those that remain unanswered. Over time, it is ultimately society who defines abnormality and then judges particular cases. Clinical theorist Thomas Szasz believes “the whole concept of mental illness to be invalid, a myth of sorts.” (Szasz, 2012, 2011, 1963, 1960) According to Szasz, “the deviations that society calls abnormal are simply ‘problems in living’ not signs of something wrong within a person.” Societies, he is convinced, invent the concept of mental illness so they can better control or change people whose behavior is unusual enough to upset or threaten the social order. (Abnormal Psychology, 2014)

Acceptable Behavior

Even if we give society the benefit of the doubt and assume that psychological abnormality is a valid concept and that it can somehow be defined, an accurate definition cannot be applied on a consistent basis. If a behavior is widespread and familiar enough, society may be unwilling to recognize it as deviant, dysfunctional or dangerous. Consider for example, alcohol consumption among college students. In the United States thousands of college students are so dependent upon alcohol that it creates an enormous dysfunction in their lives. It causes great physical discomfort, and jeopardizes the lives of innocent people around them as well as their own health. (Hingson& White, 2010) Yet the problem is virtually ignored and undiagnosed. Alcohol use has become such a huge part of college life that it is easy to overlook the behavior.

The Cat Lady: Eccentric or Abnormal?

Now consider a society that has trouble separating an abnormality that requires some form of therapy from an eccentricity, i.e., an unusual but harmless behavior. For example we see individuals who think of themselves as collectors, and fill their homes with useless articles. These people are often labeled as having a hoarding disorder. Or a reclusive person with a dozen cats who rarely talks to anyone, is often considered to exhibit a deviant, distressful or dysfunctional behavior. Yet to psychology professionals these individuals are considered eccentric rather than abnormal.

While we see a large segment of society covering their bodies with all forms of tattoos and piercings, we may agree to define these behaviors as psychological abnormalities that are deviant, distressful, dysfunctional or even occasionally dangerous. However it is clear that these criteria are often vague and highly subjective. Few categories of abnormality included on our pages are as clear-cut as they seem, and therefore must continue to be discussed and debated by theorists and clinicians.

Patient versus Client

Some clinicians see abnormality as an illness and as such consider therapy a procedure that attempts to “cure the illness.” They speak of this person as a “patient.” Others see abnormality as a “problem in living,” and the therapist’s role as a teacher of more functional behaviors and thought processes. They refer to the individual having a problem in living as the “client.” Unless an individual has a diagnosed medical condition requiring medication and/or psychiatric or medical care, we generally consider them as having a problem in living and therefore they are clients.

Staggering Numbers of People Need Help

According to researchers, in any given year within the United States roughly thirty percent of adults and twenty to twenty-five percent of children and adolescents display serious psychological disturbances, and are in need of some form of therapy or clinical treatment. (Lopez-Duran, 2010; Narrow et al, 2002) The rates in most other countries are similiarly high.

Likewise, the majority of people worldwide have difficulty coping at various times and experience ever greater periods of stress in their lives, including dejection, fear and other forms of psychological distress.

Modern Life to Blame or Scapegoat?

Breathtakingly fast technological changes and a decline in religious, family or other support systems to which we have become accustomed, have made it tempting to blame the modern world for many of our psychological problems. While modern life probably does contribute to psychological abnormalities, fortunately, today’s society does not house its abnormal citizens in insane asylums or dunk them repeatedly in a river until they confess to witchcraft. Nor do we read of eugenics being performed on mentally ill people as we did in the early 20th century. Nonetheless many individuals who need professional psychological treatment find themselves going without. Often these people lack sufficient funds or health insurance, and may find themselves homeless or even in prison. Schizophrenia, for example, is four times more common in prison than in the general population. Personality disorders are five times more common among prisoners, and antisocial personality disorder is ten times more common among prisoners than non-prisoners. (Based on Butler et al, 2006; Fazel & Danesh, 2002)

The Jury’s Still Out

Although many mental disorders have a medical condition as the root cause, surveys have found that forty-three percent of people believe that individuals bring mental disorders upon themselves. Thirty-five percent believe such disorders are caused by sinful behavior. (Stanford, 2007; NMHA, 1999) Yet despite major advances in understanding and treatment by clinicians, more theories and types of treatment exist than ever before, resulting in greater disagreement about abnormal functioning than at any time in the past.

Mindful Living

Our approach here is to help individuals navigate through their stressful lives by providing thought-provoking information aimed at deterring mental disorders before they have a chance to develop into full-blown conditions, and to offer positive psychological influences with a better understanding of the roots of happiness through mindful living.

This report is not a diagnosis. We hope this information can guide you toward improving your life.

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