Systematic Approaches

Abnormality: Statistically Infrequent

If people are in a minority, and vary themselves from the distribution of expected statistical variation, then they are abnormal.
  • It is simple
  • Use psychometric tests and plot on a graph
However, being a minority is not the same as being abnormal:

  • Abnormality is a judgment
  • Some minority behaviours are advantageous and useful
  • Some minority activities or events clear up as expected
  • Some minority activities are normal at certain times and places
So context is important!

Deviation from Social and Cultural Norms

These norms involve expectations and some people do not meet them:
  • They exhibit bizarre and difficult behaviour compared with the vast majority
  • These people are labelled as deviant and abnormal
  • Comparison with the majority of people is to understand the effect they may have on others
However, subculture does not mean abnormality:

  • People have a right to be different
    • People have a right to religious and political beliefs
    • People have a right to own forms of relationships
  • Relativism suggests the majority can be as out of step with the minority as the minority from the majority
  • Cultural definitions are relative to place and time
  • Comparison with others is not the same as effect
  • Minorities can be beneficial in the future - we don't see it now
So the issue is not difference but functioning and harm.

Abnormality: Not Functioning in Life

Minor behaviours can be examined to see if they are distressing or dysfunctional for the individual. Work or relationships become very difficult and sometimes problems combine to overwhelm:

  • Psychological suffering
  • Person not rational
  • Person not understood
  • Over excited
  • Violating themselves
  • Maladaption personally and socially
  • Not predictable
  • People around are affected
This is useful because now the individual is being considered and in social context from a much more experiential point of view.
However, whilst some experiences are difficult, they may be beneficial in the long run:

  • Some stress helps productivity
  • Depression might just be temporary adaptation to events
  • There is still cultural opinion defining what is abnormal
    • The individual is being compared with the group functioning
  • Diagnoses of dysfunction and distress involve judgments influenced by social and cultural mores.
See Rosenhan, D. L., Seligman, M. E. P. (1989), Abnormal Psychology, New York: W. W. Norton.

Unachieved Ideal Mental Health

Just as good physical health leads to a comparison for ill-health in the body, the same can be done for the mind. The person should be able to achieve good mental health, and have treatment. Ideal mental health involves:

  • Love for oneself, at least acceptance
  • Autonomy and independence
  • Fitting in with one's surroundings
  • The ability and mental space to develop
  • Knowing what is real around and what is false
  • Getting on with other people
This is a positive approach based on ideals rather than a majority.
However, this is somewhat Western and liberal in ideals:

  • Much is still therefore cultural
  • The problem with idealism (as say being fat when being slimmer is an ideal) is that idealism itself can lead to disappointment and depression!
  • Whilst physical illness can be measured by physical signs, it is not so simple with mental health
It is important to recognise how often culture comes up in judgments and to be aware of the relativity of culture. Secondly it is important to test mental health and come up with regular results. The key perhaps is self harm and harm to others.

 Final task Looking at the picture again, a different examination

 Abnormal or not (back) Click here for previous page


Adrian Worsfold