Definitions of abnormality: can these definitions be applied to real life cases of abnormality?

First, a reminder of our sensitive issues statement.

In studying a course which reflects psychological experiences of modern society, you will be learning about issues and behaviours that you may well find uncomfortable. There will not be many people who have not been affected by psychological disorders either directly or indirectly through family members, friends and colleagues. With this in mind, the delivery of the course will be objective, sensitive and fair with scientific evidence as its foundation. For each topic, you will be provided with a resources booklet in advance. Most of the research comes from course text books, although some is from online resources. We make some use of personal accounts and news stories as a basis for understanding theories and research. Where possible, resources will be available in advance of lessons. If you are anxious about a topic, please take the opportunity to look ahead. If as a result of studying this topic you are aware of a mental health disorder within yourself or someone close to you, you should consult your doctor immediately or tell that person to do so. If you wish to speak to people in school about a problem, we can tell you about several organisations which can help. Please be aware that we cannot guarantee you confidentiality.

If you feel that any of the cases we look at will trigger distress or anxiety, please move on to another task.

You know about three definitions of abnormality: deviation from social norms, failure to function adequately, deviation from ideal mental health. The question is whether these definitions can be applied to real life cases of abnormality. There are two sub-questions. One is whether in each case, it is possible to show that the person deviates from social norms, fails to function adequately or deviates from ideal mental health. The other is whether it makes sense to have these three distinct definitions. Perhaps just one will do or perhaps we need a combination of the three.

Here are three links to websites which tell the stories of people with psychological disorders honestly and responsibly, Use the stories of people there to answer this question. and


  1. Here’s how 12C thought about this on Friday…… We seemed to agree that it was possible to apply these definitions of abnormality to the life stories we were reading. Each definition of abnormality had some validity. The point was made that someone with an eating disorder might fulfil almost all of the criteria for deviating from ideal mental health. We also noticed that there was a match between a disorder and one definition in particular. Eating disorders appear to be about deviating from social norms and defying conventions about eating. We decided that it was often difficult to separate the definitions from each other. Deviation from social norm and deviation from ideal mental health are closely related. Part of mastery of the environment in this definition is to fit in with the people around you and conform to their norms. That might include functioning adequately as well. We can conclude that there is a great deal of overlap between the three definitions.

    We might reasonably ask why we bother with these definitions at all if they overlap so much. There are two ways of looking at this. Firstly, some people who work in mental health have suggested that we do not need definitions of abnormality at all. Put simply, if people think they need help, they should be able to go and get it. They should be able to go to a therapist, formulate a problem and then work out a solution without the need to prove that they are abnormal and then be given a diagnosis of a particular condition. Secondly, we have possibly been looking at this problem the wrong way round. The problem with these definitions is not how to apply them to people who are obviously ill but how to avoid applying them to people who are well. One of the big concerns in mental health at the moment is that people are defined as abnormal, diagnosed and then offered treatment when they do not really need it. The post on last week’s Post Of The Week about bereavement and antidepressants is a good example of this. This in turn relates to issues of classification and the development of DSM5. If you want to know more, click on the classification tag on this blog.

  2. And here is how 12A saw it …… We started with the idea that these definitions of abnormality are very broad and can include a wide range of abnormalities. This shows us that defining someone as abnormal is only the first stage in the process of diagnosis. The precise nature of their abnormality is then decided by matching their symptoms to the criteria for each condition. In this session, we focused on deviation from ideal mental health. We recognised that the criteria are strict: the absence of even one or two would constitute abnormality. We also recognised that different disorders would
    emphasise different aspects of ideal mental health.

    We looked more closely at the idea of a checklist. One idea about why we need three definitions of abnormality is that a checklist approach does not always capture someone’s abnormality. Looking more generally at how someone functions or the extent to which they deviate from social norms might get us to notice things that Jahoda’s criteria miss.

    The idea of a checklist and criteria begs the question about who is doing the defining. In western culture, the people who do the defining are doctors. Having the right to designate someone as abnormal gives that person much power. What is then interesting is that this power is becoming global. Definitions of abnormality have traditionally been culture bound. They depend on the norms of the society in which they operate. They have existed in all cultures throughout history. It is now recognised that the major disease burden across the world in twenty years’ time will be depression and anxiety. Armed with DSM5, the diagnostic and statistical manual of the American Psychiatric Association, clinicians across the world will be giving out western based diagnoses followed by western style treatments. The interest in the next 20 or 30 years is whether this will do any good.

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