Ideas of "normal" and "abnormal" are largely shaped by social standards and can have profound social ramifications.
Analyze the challenges inherent in trying to define "normal" and "abnormal"
What is considered "normal" changes with changing societal standards.
Despite the challenges inherent in defining "normal," it is still important to establish guidelines so as to be able to identify and help people who are suffering. This is the goal of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (known as the DSM-5), a publication in the field of clinical psychology.
The DSM-5 attempts to explicitly distinguish normality from abnormality based on specific symptoms.
In very crude terms, society generally sees normality as good and abnormality as bad. Being labeled as "normal" or "abnormal" can have profound ramifications for an individual, such as exclusion or stigmatization by society.
Stigma and discrimination can add to the suffering and disability of those who are diagnosed with (or perceived to have) a mental disorder.
In order to reduce stigma, a recent move has been made toward the adoption of person-centered language: referring to people as "individuals with mental illness" rather than "mentally ill individuals" (e.g., a "person with bipolar disorder," rather than a "bipolar person").
The establishment of a cause, origin, or reason for something.
Challenges in Defining "Normal"
A psychological disorder is a condition characterized by abnormal thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. However, defining what is "normal" and "abnormal" is a subject of much debate. Definitions of normality vary widely by person, time, place, culture, and situation. "Normal" is, after all, a subjectiveperception, and also an amorphous one—it is often easier to describe what is not normal than what is normal.
In simple terms, however, society at large often perceives or labels "normal" as "good," and "abnormal" as "bad." Being labeled as "normal" or "abnormal" can therefore have profound ramifications for an individual, such as exclusion or stigmatization by society.
Although it is difficult to define "normal," it is still important to establish guidelines in order to be able to identify and help people who are suffering. To this end, the fields of psychology and psychiatry have developed the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (known as the DSM-5), a standardized hierarchy of diagnostic criteria to help discriminate among normal and abnormal (i.e. "pathological") behaviors and symptoms. The 5th edition of the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the DSM-5) lays out explicit and specific guidelines for identifying and categorizing symptoms and diagnoses.
Clinical Definitions of Abnormal: The DSM
The DSM is a central element of the debate around defining normality, and it continues to change and evolve. Currently, in the DSM-5 (the fifth edition), abnormal behavior is generally defined as behavior that violates a norm in society, is maladaptive, is rare given the context of the culture and environment, and is causing the person distress in their daily life. Specifically, the goal of the DSM-5 is to identify abnormal behavior that is indicative of some kind of psychological disorder. The DSM identifies the specific criteria used when diagnosing patients; it represents the industry standard for psychologists and psychiatrists, who often work together to diagnose and treat psychological disorders.
As the DSM has evolved over time, there have been a number of conflicts surrounding the categorization of abnormal versus normal mental functioning. Much of this difficulty comes from distinguishing between an expected stress reaction (a reaction to stressful life events that could be considered "normal") and individual dysfunction (symptoms or stress reactions that are beyond what a "normal" or expected reaction might be). As a result, the DSM explicitly distinguishes mental disorders and non-disordered conditions. A non-disordered condition results from, or is perpetuated by, social stressors. To this end, the DSM requires that to meet the diagnostic criteria for a mental disorder, an individual's symptoms "must not be merely an expectable and culturally sanctioned response to a particular event; for example, the death of a loved one. Whatever [the pattern of symptoms'] original cause, it must currently be considered a manifestation of a behavioral, psychological, or biological dysfunction in the individual."
That said, if an individual's response to a particular situation is causing significant impairment in more than one area of the individual's life (such as work, home, school environment, or relationships), it may be considered abnormal or an indicator of a psychological disorder regardless of its etiology.
It is important to analyze the societal consequences of diagnosis because so many people experience mental illness at some point in their lives. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), more than a third of people globally meet the criteria for at least one diagnosable mental disorder at some point in their lives. Unfortunately, stigma and discrimination can add to their suffering and disability. This has led various social movements to work to increase societal awareness and understanding of mental illness and challenge social exclusion.
A stigma is the societal disapproval and judgment of a person or group of people because they do not fit their community's social norms. In the context of mental illness, social stigma is characterized as prejudiced attitudes and discriminatory behavior directed toward individuals with mental illness as a result of the label they have been given. In the United States, people are often pressured to be "normal"—or at least perceived as such—in order to gain acceptance by society. Society tends to be uncomfortable with "abnormality"—so if someone does not conform to what is perceived as normal, they might be given a number of negative labels, such as "sick", "crazy", or "psycho." These labels lead to discrimination, marginalization, and isolation of—even violence against—the individual.
In a related issue, self-stigmatization is when someone internalizes society's negative perceptions of them or of people they think are like them: they begin to believe, or fear that others will believe, that the negative labels and perceptions are true.
This internalization contributes to feelings of shame and usually leads to poorer treatment outcomes. Experience of stigma or self-stigma can also lead to the following:
Refusal to receive treatment. An individual's fear of stigmatization and alienation may lead them to refuse treatment altogether. Anxiety about others' perceptions and the social consequences that come along with a label of mental illness often deter people from seeking help in any therapeutic, familial, social, or pharmacological context.
Social isolation. An individual with mental illness may avoid social settings altogether; for example, an individual struggling with depression may choose not to see or speak with friends and family for fear of "bringing them down" or "being a burden." This is especially dangerous in light of the knowledge that social connectedness is one of the key factors in recovery from mental illness.
Distorted perception of the incidence of mental illness. Although approximately one in three people will experience mental illness at some point in their life, there are still many people who do not acknowledge mental illness as a public health concern. By causing people to not seek out treatment, society's stigma of mental illness leads to fewer diagnoses and fewer people getting help. This means that mental illness seems far less common than it actually is.
Stigmas are usually deeply ingrained in society over many years and so cannot be eradicated instantly. But with the rising awareness that mental illness affects so many people in the United States and globally, more and more is being done to reduce the stigma associated with such illnesses.
For example, the field of psychology has recently moved toward using deliberate person-centered language—referring to people as individuals with mental illness rather than mentally ill individuals. In this way, the language emphasizes the individual's humanity and defines them as a person first, rather than defining them by their illness.
For instance, referring to someone as "the anorexic girl" has a different impact than "the girl with anorexia." In the first example, the individual is entirely defined by the disorder; in the second, anorexia is a characteristic, but not a defining one. The same goes for "the student with ADHD," "the child with autism," and "the mother with depression"—each of these is far less stigmatizing than "the ADHD student," "the autistic child," and "the depressed mother."