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Avatar Author 01 Aug 2023

Abnormal Psychology: Know more than what you’ve heard

The use of the term ‘abnormal’ has been the subject of considerable debate in the recent past. What exactly is ‘normal’ and who distinguishes normality and abnormality is another spectrum of this debate. The social norms dictate and determine what is normal versus abnormal behaviour and this definition will keep changing over time. Therefore, the concept of abnormality is imprecise, and very hard to confine it into a standard definition.


Abnormal psychology has been an important branch of psychology since its inception dealing with psychopathology and abnormal behaviour comes more often in a clinical setup. It is the division of psychology that investigates and studies people who are atypical or abnormal in comparison to the other members of a given society. Clinical psychologists, psychotherapists, and counselors mainly work in this field of psychology. As an aspirant of psychology or a professional, understanding the history of abnormal psychology and its present status is crucial. This blog will discuss the basics of abnormal psychology and how it is different from other areas of psychology. Also, we will dwell on the definition of abnormality and the known criticisms of this branch.


Abnormal Psychology: Meaning and definition


Abnormal psychology primarily focuses on signs of mental health conditions through your emotions, thoughts, and behaviour. As opposed to bifurcating behaviour into normal and abnormal, psychologists in this field try to assess the level of distress that your thoughts, emotions, and behaviours might cause. Any behaviour of an individual that derails him or her from leading a life without problems would constitute abnormal behaviour. Where a person’s life is being affected or there are disruptive results to a particular behaviour, those, in the opinion of psychologists in this field, require some sort of mental health intervention and treatment. Abnormal psychology as a branch is streamlined towards understanding and studying psychopathology and disruptive behaviour in a clinical context.


The concept of abnormality is very difficult to define. Where at first sight a definition may seem reasonable, a closer look will reveal how problematic it can be. Due to this ambiguity, it is important to understand the several different ways in which a possible definition for ‘abnormal’ can be given against our idea of what is ‘normal’ and what is not.


Definitions of Abnormality


1. Statistical Infrequency: Under this definition, a person’s trait, behaviour, and thinking are classified as abnormal if it is rare or unusual. However, this does not serve as a sufficient definition because even some healthy and beneficial behaviours occur infrequently. Just because something is unusual or uncommon it does not mean that it is abnormal.


2. Distress-inducing: Abnormal behaviours are seen as those that disturb the peace of an individual or be disruptive to others.


3. Socially Disruptive: Based on the sociological definition, such behaviour is considered violative of social norms. People with abnormal behaviour would find it difficult to operate in social settings and maintain long-lasting or even brief, social relationships.


4. Affects the ability to function: Where usual functionality in daily life is being affected along with a disturbance in relationships, work, and personal life, it is indicative of abnormal behaviour. Such people come under the radar of abnormal psychology as the ability to function normally, even in a secure place, is highly lacking.


Scope of Abnormal Psychology


Largely, abnormal psychology studies psychological disorders, their diagnosis, treatment, and prevention. Psychological disorders are patterns of behaviour or clinical symptoms that impact multiple areas of a person’s life. These conditions put the person experiencing the symptoms in deep distress. Mental health professionals in the field use the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) published by the American Psychiatric Association (APA). The DSM is a reference manual for professionals containing a list of psychiatric disorders, diagnostic codes, and relevant information for each disorder and diagnostic criteria. Additionally, the International Classification of Diseases (ICD) is another globally used diagnostic tool for epidemiology and clinical purposes maintained by the World Health Organization (WHO).


These manuals have characterised psychological disorders into multiple sections some of which include, mood disorders, anxiety disorders, neurodevelopmental disorders, personality disorders, substance use disorders, and neurocognitive disorders, such as delirium, etc.


Approaches of Abnormal Psychology


1. Behavioural: This area of study looks for observable behaviours that can be reinforced with positive behaviour through therapy. This approach to abnormal psychology only targets behaviour and not its underlying causes.


2. Medical: This approach of abnormal psychology looks for biological causes of mental illness and its underlying cause including genetic inheritance physical illness and chemical imbalances. Treatment is focused on medicines along with some type of psychotherapy.


3. Cognitive: The cognitive approach attempts to understand how perceptions, thoughts, and reasoning that happens internally, can be a cause for psychological disorders. Therefore, even cognitive treatments are focused on helping individuals change their thoughts or reactions.


4. Psychoanalytic: This Freud-influenced approach suggests abnormal behaviours grow from unconscious desires, thoughts, and memories. It believes that the feelings that are outside of our awareness influence our conscious actions.


Criticisms of Abnormal Psychology


There is no doubt that the field of abnormal psychology is under major scrutiny. The usage of the word ‘abnormal’ itself is highly problematic. In addition to debates over the use of the term itself, there are also other shortcomings observed by many.


In a way, the field stigmatizes vulnerable and oppressed people and tends to monger pathology on normal variations of human behaviour. Critics also suggest that the medical approach to mental illness is restricted to biological and genetic factors of distress rather than taking a broader view of the distress-causing behaviour. It also does not account for the fact that what is normal and abnormal is based on cultural differences, leading to a rudimental approach to mental illness. Certain studies also found that learning about abnormal psychology was not that effective in reducing mental health stigma and improving attitudes toward it. It is pertinent to understand that abnormal psychology is not trying to fit people into a narrow definition of normal but focuses on identifying and treating problematic behaviour.


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