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Defining Abnormality

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The concept of abnormality is a fluid one, fluctuating and changing in “an endless process of man’s self-creation and his reshaping of the world” (Eva Syistova, 2010), caving to the will of cultures and individuals over the course of history, thus making a true definition almost impossible.
However, using statistical and social deviations, the notion of what ideal mental health is, and that failure to function adequately exists, psychologists have created a method to help classify abnormality.

Perhaps to fully understand abnormality, one must first grasp what it really means to be normal. Marie Jahoda (1958) came up with a list of criterion that people with ideal mental health would be able to fulfil, namely efficient self-perception, realistic self-esteem, voluntary control of behaviour, true perception of the world, sustaining relationships and giving affection as well as self-direction and productivity. Aside from the glaringly obvious fact that these criterion are not measurable, Jahoda neglected to consider other cultures, such ‘collectivists’ who value cooperation over independence, and how they would view such a list replete with Western morals.
By having a set list of what it means to be normal, the pressure to conform increases, and combined with the intrinsic human desire to feel included, people appear normal when they are not, which creates an inner conflict, often worsening the initial situation. The pressure to normalise also increases shame in some individuals who then never identify with their abnormality or come to terms with their disorder (Ruth Bridgens 2009).

Much like Jahoda’s criterion, statistical infrequencies make sense until they’re looked at again. In this definition, behaviours which are statistically rare are seen to be abnormal. However, the term ‘abnormal’ has generally negative connotations with the implication that treatment is needed, when in fact some rare traits are often quite desirable, such as having a high IQ for instance. The purely statistical representation of data also fails to account for cultural differences. In many cultures people with rare abilities, like being able to hear voices, are revered, whereas in Europe or the USA, this would be seen has highly undesirable.
Using statistical deviations to define abnormality also implies that the presence of abnormalities in humans is rare or statistically anomalous, when actually most people exhibit some truly abnormal behaviour at some point in their lives (usually in their adolescence) without being classified as abnormal. It is interesting to think that abnormality is normal on a demographic scale, but abnormal in an individual.
One should also note that statistical infrequencies differ drastically as one moves around the globe. In eastern Asia Koro is a common phenomena where males drive themselves into a state of panic, convinced that their genitals are retreating into their bodies to eventually disappear entirely. Oddly enough, in the West this disorder is almost completely unheard of, and thus not represented in the DSM as of 2011 (though it is a proposed classification).

Often abnormalities become an issue when they interfere with daily activities such as going to work, eating, sleeping, washing and dressing. Rosenhan and Seligman in 1984 created a list of criteria for abnormal behaviour which covered how the patient dealt with life (distress, maladaptation, irrationality and unpredictability), possible deviations from social norms (observer discomfort and violation of moral standards) and a final personal judgement on conventionality (patient experiences things differently). Psychologists have generally accepted that the more of these items are crossed off, the more likely it is that the patient leans to the abnormal side of the spectrum.
Unfortunately, like all else, gaping loopholes have been found in this approach to defining abnormality, namely that this approach is far too subjective, and that it does not clearly differentiate between what is abnormal and what behaviour is just plain odd.

The difficulties of differentiating between oddness and abnormality have plagued psychologists for decades, and is best illustrated through the changing status of homosexuality. Until the 1980s it was classed as a mental disorder in the DSM, and countless countries, such as the USA have a backward policy on same-sex relationships. Several major cities in Malaysia are working to change the law to make it illegal for anyone to even support homosexuals as recently as 2010, whereas Scandinavian countries tend to be much more liberal about sexuality
The deviation from social norms is probably the category that is most affected by cultural relativism. If we were to take the example ‘Naked male human jumps around,’ in the context of our culture, that behaviour would be abnormal. However, if a naked male were to be jumping about in a nudist colony or as a member of the Sentinelese tribe on the Anaman Islands, his behaviour would be completely acceptable, and our clothes would seem unusual.
Yet another reason why definitions of abnormality vary from culture to culture is that the experiences of mental disorders differ greatly. Westerners separate physical and psychological pain, whereas a Chinese person may complain of a headache instead of depression, because in that culture the body and spirit are united. In China it is also considered highly disrespectful to discuss personal matters with a stranger, so they are less likely to approach a psychologist for help.
Personal bias plays a significant role in the diagnosis of abnormality as well. For example, Puerto Ricans are often misdiagnosed, because their culture has a unique way of dealing with stress, and it involves frenzied heart-rates, seizure-like episodes and fainting spells. This behaviour when viewed by an outsider is immediately deemed abnormal, when it is really only part of the culture (Guaraccia 1990).

There can be no unquestionable and concrete definition of abnormality, because it differs in every culture and subculture, varying from person to person as they gather individual life experiences. Since scientists have yet to prove that abnormality is genetic, there can be no absolute cure, and we must continue to rely on subjective tests and vague criteria to keep up with the continuous change in what it means to be normal, and thus the new definition of abnormality. Even if a definitive cure emerged to ‘fix’ all mental disorders, some would argue that this is not a path worth taking, because the presence of abnormals indicates what it truly means to be normal.

References

"Malaysian States to Punish Homosexuality." The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 11 Nov. 2011. Web. 11 Oct. 2012. .

Bartlett, Steven James (2011). Normality Does Not Equal Mental Health: The Need to Look Elsewhere for Standards of Good Psychological Health. New York: Praeger.ISBN 0-313-39931-X, 9780313399312.

^ Bridgens, Ruth (5). "Disability and Being 'Normal ': A Response to McLaughlin and Goodley: Response". Sociology 43: 753–761. doi:10.1177/0038038509105419.

Syristová, Eva (2010). A Contribution to Phenomenology of the Human Normality in the Modern Time. Dordrecht: Springer Science + Business Media.

Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders, Second edition. Washington: American Psychiatric Association. 1968.

Homosexuality: Proposed Change in DSM-11". The American Psychiatric Association 6th Printing. 1973.

Kendall, Philip C.; Hammen, Constance L (1997) Abnormal Psychology Understanding Human Progress: Understanding Human Problems. New York: Houghton Mifflin.

References: "Malaysian States to Punish Homosexuality." The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 11 Nov. 2011. Web. 11 Oct. 2012. . Bartlett, Steven James (2011). Normality Does Not Equal Mental Health: The Need to Look Elsewhere for Standards of Good Psychological Health. New York: Praeger.ISBN 0-313-39931-X, 9780313399312. ^ Bridgens, Ruth (5). "Disability and Being 'Normal ': A Response to McLaughlin and Goodley: Response". Sociology 43: 753–761. doi:10.1177/0038038509105419. Syristová, Eva (2010). A Contribution to Phenomenology of the Human Normality in the Modern Time. Dordrecht: Springer Science + Business Media. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders, Second edition. Washington: American Psychiatric Association. 1968. Homosexuality: Proposed Change in DSM-11". The American Psychiatric Association 6th Printing. 1973. Kendall, Philip C.; Hammen, Constance L (1997) Abnormal Psychology Understanding Human Progress: Understanding Human Problems. New York: Houghton Mifflin.

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