Concepts of abnormality and mental health

The word Abnormality means-“uneven’ and comes from the Greek meaning of- ‘anomaios’ which translates as ‘differing from what is standard or normal”. Cambridge (2010)

The word Normality means – “to conform to a standard, usual, typical or expected”. Cambridge (2010)

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So does that mean if we are told we our ‘abnormal’ then we our ‘uneven’ or differing from what is standard or normal?

The concept of abnormality refers to a person that is unable to function or conform to the social conditioning expected within the social boundaries of where they live in the world.

What is abnormality – this could be a complete subject all on its own, the interpretation of this, is subject to the bias of whoever is studying or even talking about the subject .In some ways we all consider what is norm to us, as being the norm, but who is to say our interpretation is the one that is correct.

But how can abnormality be defined, as someone who is not behaving in the ‘norm’ or maybe someone who is suffering from a psychological disorder, or not behaving within the set boundary’s laid out by the laws or religions within different societies, so there for to say what is abnormal would be dependent on statistical variables. Cohen (1988): “reports that ‘loony bins’ are used to imprison those unwilling to conform to Society’s expectations”.

To describe a person suffering from a form of mental illness, as considered as abnormal would depend on various factors, as there is a large percentage of people within western society who have/had some form of mental illness, so there for it could be considered as the ‘norm’. But can we say that people who have/had a mental illness are abnormal. Szasz (1960) believed that all mental illness is socially constructed by governments as a means of controlling the behaviour of those it sees as a threat.

Maher (1985) viewed abnormality as four different categories:

Norm Violation – This classification use is termed to measure cultural normality, for example in some countries to give eye contact would be unacceptable ‘abnormal’, where in others giving eye contact is a respectful behaviourism.

Statistical Rarity – This term is used when the use of statistical data represents a low proportion of the population, and because it’s a minority then it’s thought of as abnormal, i.e. not following the majority.

Maladaptive Behaviour – When an individual is unable to cope in life with the basic tasks, such as earning a wage, communicating with people, getting along in society. When individuals are not able to run their own lives, i.e. dysfunctional.

Personal Discomfort – This term occurs when an individual has distressing thoughts about themselves, or life.

But can these categories of set abnormal, normal sub- divisions be measured against certain individual circumstances – psychiatrists usually will look at maladaptive behaviour if linking the abnormal term to behaviour.

“When you think of this dividing up of the personality into ego, super-ego and id, you must not imagine sharp dividing lines such as are artificially drawn in the field of political geography. We cannot do justice to the characteristics of the mind by means of linear contours, such as occur in a drawing or in a primitive painting, but we need rather the areas of colour shading off into one another that are to be found in modern pictures. After we have made our separations, we must allow what we have separated to merge again. Do not judge too harshly of a first attempt at picturing a thing so elusive as the human mind.” Freud (1940)

There are three main causes of abnormality these are:

Psychological – When individuals are affected by a child-hood traumas, faulty schemas

Biological – Brain injury, inherited imbalance, environmental factors

Socio-cultural – Inter-personal relationship problems

These sub groups help psychotherapists in monitoring and naming of abnormal behaviour into various reasons why or what makes a person behave in a particular way. Although it is very important not to stereotype individuals who we believe fits into our causal scheme without clear classification and observation.

Classification of Mental Illness

We have two main recognised classification systems The DSM IV and the ICD -10:

The DSM IV – This system was introduced in 1994 it is the classification system brought in by the American Psychiatric Association, this system looks at five key features known as axis I-5.

ICD 10 – This is the system of the World health Organisation’s international classification of diseases and was introduced in 1992 to coincide with the DSM IV system.

Both these systems have many identical categories of mental disorders – this is because the two factors worked closely in the preparation of the two systems from 1988 until 1992 both systems used extensive research including field trials to validate the information for its reliability and validity. (There has been a lot of disagreement in work carried out as to the real value or validity of the research) Laing is regarded as an important figure in the anti-psychiatry


Anti-psychiatry usually refers to a configuration of groups and theories that emerged in the 1960s hostile to most of the fundamental assumptions and practices of psychiatry. Its igniting influences were Michel Foucault, R. D. Laing, Thomas Szasz and, in Italy, Franco Basaglia. The term was first…

Movement, along with ‘David Cooper’

David Cooper (psychiatrist)

David Graham Cooper was a British psychiatrist, noted theorist and leader in the anti-psychiatry movement, along with R. D. Laing, Thomas Szasz and Michel Foucault. Cooper was born in South Africa and graduated from the University of Cape Town in 1955…

, though he never denied the value of treating mental distress. He wanted to challenge the core values of a psychiatry which considers mental illness as primarily a biological phenomenon, without any social, intellectual or political significance.

Laing was a critic of psychiatric diagnosis, arguing that diagnosis of a mental disorder contradicted accepted medical procedure: diagnosis was made on the basis of behaviour or conduct, and examination and ancillary tests that traditionally precede diagnosis of viable pathologies like broken bones or pneumonia occurred after (if at all) the diagnosis of mental disorder. Hence, according to Laing, psychiatry was founded on a false epistemology: illness diagnosed by conduct but treated biologically. The fact that medical doctors had annexed mental disorders did not mean they were practicing medicine; hence, the popular term “medical model of mental illness” is oxymoronic, since, according to Laing, diagnosis of mental illness did not follow the traditional medical model. The notion that biological psychiatry

Biological psychiatry

Biological psychiatry, or biopsychiatry is an approach to psychiatry that aims to understand mental disorder in terms of the biological function of the nervous system…

Is a real science or a genuine branch of medicine has been challenged by other critics as well. Laing (1965)

(When we look at the two classifications we immediately see that the American version has 16 categories where as the European version has only 9 categories).

The IEC is used in a wide variety of countries across the world, mainly third world countries, where as the DSM IV is used in the American countries, and most first world countries .The two systems are used by psychiatrists to date, but vary considerably in their classifications and procedures, which gives cause for concern, although an improvement on the past methods.

In these classifications each disorder has a specific list of symptoms, some or all of these must be present for a certain period of time, and symptoms of other disorders must not be present.

Psychological Disorders

Psychological disorders are grouped in to 5 groups known as Axis 1/5

“Axis I: Clinical disorders, including major mental disorders, and learning disorders

Axis II: Personality disorders and mental retardation (although developmental disorders, such as Autism, were coded on Axis II in the previous edition, these disorders are now included on Axis 1)

Axis III: Acute medical conditions and physical disorders

Axis IV: Psychosocial and environmental factors contributing to the disorder

Axis V: Global Assessment of Functioning” sourced-Wikipedia (2010)

Some of the disorders in this classification are:

Schizophrenia, autism, Down’s syndrome,

Psychosocial Stressors agoraphobia, bulimia nervosa,

Gender identity, delusional disorders, somatoform disorder and Mood disorders

Biological Disorders sometimes known as chemical

Biological classification of disorders is usually to do with the chemical levels in the brain, and can be found in women especially during menstrual cycle, pregnancy, miscarriage, menopause and childbirth. In some patients who have a family history of mental disorders, a gene can be inherited called ‘5-HTT’ this effects the levels of serotonin”. This is the mood-changing drug in the brain, “it is thought that about 20% of the population have what is called the ‘short’ version of ‘5-HTT’, those of us with the short version of ‘5-HTT’ are more susceptible to depression from things like death of a relative or other life-stressing event”. NHS (2010)

So we can see there are many reasons for a person to befall a mental health problem be it environmental, hereditary or social or dietary disorders and drug abuse.

Mental Health Treatments:

There are many approaches to the treatment of mental disorders –

Psychological disorders – can be treated in many ways, and the method used can be relative to the causes, for a long time the use of anti -depressants was the front line treatment for depression, although it is questionable whether this was purely down to a matter of cost (to state for one to one therapy), availability, quick fix syndrome i.e. (consultation in – prescribe out) or lack of good clinical judgement. Other treatments include psychotherapeutic- psychoanalysis which was a model by (Freud) whereby he believed that talking over a person’s inner most thoughts can help aid recovery from a mental illness, this was the for-front of psychotherapeutic models, known as the ‘talking therapy’. Other interventions such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) Beck, (1977), talk therapy, life style changes and alternative remedies, or a combination of treatments can be used. In some cases where anti -depressants do not work the use of ECT Electro Convulsive therapy is used this is where there is an electric shock is given that will cause a seizure a short period where brain activity is irregular. This in turn causes a burst of chemicals to the brain, (neurotransmitters) these chemicals are passed from cell to cell and can enhance the effectiveness of the brain and its messengers. Although the use of SSRi (selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors) type anti-depressant is mostly used by health professionals for mood disorders, the main ingredient being serotonin which provides an increase in serotonin levels in the brain.

Biological disorders – Chemotherapy – This treatment uses drugs to alter the body, the drugs used in mental health are termed ‘Psychoactive’ drugs, and these change the chemicals in the brain (neurotransmitters).

‘ECT’ Electro Convulsive therapy – This is where an electric shock is given that will cause a seizure, a short period where brain activity is irregular. This in turn causes a burst of chemicals to the brain, (neurotransmitters) these chemicals are passed from cell to cell and can enhance the effectiveness of the brain and its messengers.

Surgical Procedures:

Known as Deep Brain Therapy, we have two types of disorders that can be treated by stimulation of the brain (OCD) Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and (MDD) Major Depression Disease. In these procedures there is an implantation of a stimulator, which produces small electrical pulses which can be adjusted during subsequent visits.

In conclusion we can see there is a large variety of treatment for mental health, from mild un-invasive therapies to invasive surgery, although there is a lot of skepticism in the way in which the different types of mental illness are diagnosed and treated. We have come a long way from some of the medieval thoughts and procedures, but there is clearly a lot of room for further research into the classification, diagnosis and treatment of mental health. With such a broad subject area ‘abnormality’ within a psycho-dynamic sense is a subject that holds much criticism and speculation, and is dependent as discussed on various factors. With the use of more psycho-therapeutic advances that help deal with the core root of mental distress, I feel is working in the right direction in reducing reoccurring mental illness. “Abnormality, in the sense of something deviating from the normal or differing from the typical (such as an aberration), is a subjectively defined behavioral characteristic, assigned to those with rare or dysfunctional conditions. Defining who is normal or abnormal is a contentious issue in abnormal psychology”. (2010)

Words 1971


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NHS.,choices.2010.Depression/Causes.[online] Available at: [Accessed on 28th April 2010]

Psychology4A,.n.d.Abnormaility.[online] Available at: [Accessed on 30th April 2010]

Robins.,B,D.1999.SigmundFreud.[online]Available at: [Accessed on 29th April 2010]

Wikipedia,.2010.AbnormalPsychology.[online]Available at: [Accessed on 30th April 2010]

Wikipedia,.2010.DiagnosticandStatisticalManualofMentalDisorders.[online] Available at: [Accessed on 29th April 2010]

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