Abnormal Psychology – Says Who?

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Abnormal psychology is a subject that has been studied extensively and has taken the interest of many individuals throughout the world, myself included. I am an average, young girl, with a decent corporate job who has a piece of paper that says I know some stuff about Psychology. I am not a psychologist by any means, but I do have a passion for learning about the human mind and how humans can progress and, ultimately, change our world and society to a more desirable state. On a smaller scale, I have come to realize that I am not a fan of the term ‘abnormal psychology.’ In fact, I strongly dislike it. Lying in bed ranting to my (lucky) boyfriend one night, I discovered that I see many things wrong with the term ‘abnormal.’

What does it mean to be ‘normal’? In university I learned that ‘normal’ is a subjective term, depending on many factors such as age, culture and personal preference. Ironically, at the same university, I took (and loved) a course called ‘abnormal psychology,’ seemingly an objective and defined concept. Of course, we have bell curves and standard deviation and other mathematical tools that induce migraines in individuals such as myself. But once we have these bell curves, how is it decided where the line is crossed at which point one has a mental disorder? Who makes this decision? Who is considered qualified to do so? Obviously, the smaller the section of the curve that is considered ‘normal’ leaves a larger section for those considered ‘abnormal.’ The higher the percentage of the population that is deemed ‘abnormal,’ is positively correlated the number of mental health diagnoses, prescriptions for corresponding medications and profit for drug companies. Do drug companies have a say in these statistics? If so, how much? If this conflict of interest exists, to whatever extent, it would play a roll in those deemed ‘abnormal.’

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A primary focus in the past few years in psychology- and social services-related fields has been reducing stigma associated with mental illness. This is crucial and many organizations are doing great things to attempt to peel away at this burden in our society. I wonder if/how the term ‘abnormal psychology’ affects such stigma. Those with a diagnosed mental illness are labelled as abnormal – how does this make them feel? Do people notice this label or care? One must wonder if this term makes individuals feel outcasted, strange, or that they don’t fit in. If so, this is opposing everything we have been working towards in the mental health field – a huge problem. My biggest concern is the potential for this label to prevent individuals who may be suffering from a mental issue from addressing their needs and getting help. Regardless of whether the person in question is suffering from a diagnosable illness or not, it is always worth asking the question and then taking appropriate precautions. We should and are morally obligated to encourage people to do so; we should not make them feel different, strange or inferior for questioning if they are suffering or if they could be living a better life. 

Let’s assume for a second that the term ‘abnormal’ does create or add to feelings of being an outcast. Would such feelings affect one’s disorder? I believe that it is possible that such feelings may decrease self esteem and exacerbate the very problem that is trying to be improved. If the disorder is affected by feelings of isolation, will this in turn affect how one heals? It may make healing a more difficult and/or longer process, which is once again the opposite of what we are trying to accomplish.

Is it possible that I have over-analyzed an insignificant term? Yes, perhaps. But is it possible that the well-being of some people could be improved if we chose a better, less offensive, more accurate term to describe this area of study? I believe it just might. I have not yet identified such a term, but I believe one could be. This is something that should be seriously considered/modified by psychology professionals, as it could help in the goal to reduce stigma and, most importantly, enhance the lives of people that make up the society we live in.

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