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How do psychologists define abnormal behaviour? What are the advantages and disadvantage of using such definitions? In America alone, 22% of the population suffers from a diagnosable mental disorder, nearly half between the ages of 15 and 54 will experience a psychological disorder in their life. Psychological disorders are the second leading cause of disability after heart disease. Medications to treat mental disorders are the most prescribed drugs in America and one in four Americans will suffer from a substance abuse disorder (Satcher, 1999). Defining what is abnormal depends on the time and the culture, for example cannibalism is practiced in many cultures around the world but in western cultures it is considered to be very pathological (Walker, 2001). Even until 1973, homosexuality was officially diagnosed as a mental illness, however many people in our society still view homosexuality as a psychological disorder (Herek, 2002). It seems that three criteria are important in the decisions of what is abnormal: distress, dysfunction and deviance. Being labelled as mentally ill is stigmatising and therefore distressing for the person, it is only judged abnormal when it becomes acute and long-lasting. However this is not a good indicator of abnormality as many mental patients are so far from reality that they experience little or no distress. Secondly the behaviour of the person must be dysfunctional for the individual and society for example the ability to work or experience satisfying relationships especially if they seem unable to control their behaviour. Deviance from the social norm or society is seen as abnormal for example staring at someone for a prolonged amount of time; behaviours such as these make others uncomfortable and can’t always be attributed to the environment. Overall both personal and social judgements of behaviour are important in deciding what is abnormal. The DSM-IV is the most widely used diagnostic classification system with more than 350 diagnostic categories which is represented along five axes. Axis I represents the person’s clinical symptoms such as deviant behaviours. Axis II shows any long-standing personality disorders. Axis III notes any physical conditions such as high blood pressure and environmental stressors are shown on axis IV. How well the person copes with the stressors goes under axis V. A criticism of the DSM-IV is that they are so detailed that not many people can fit exactly into the categories (Beutler & Malik, 2002). The reliability and validity of the categories are debateable as some of the characteristics overlap for instance the personality disorders of axis II can overlap with axis I which can lead to disagreements in diagnoses (Widiger & Sankis, 2000). Diagnostic labels can create or worsen psychological disorders (Matorin, 2002). When people are diagnosed a self-fulfilling prophecy can develop where they take on the expected role and outlook. The effects on morale and self-esteem can be devastating and because of this many people do not seek treatment. When someone has been diagnosed with a mental disorder we tend to look at the person individually and not at their behaviour, it then becomes difficult to look at a person’s behaviour objectively and most importantly will affect how we interact with that person. David Rosenhan (1973) and seven other individuals got themselves admitted into a psychiatric hospital by saying that they could hear voices. They were diagnosed with schizophrenia and admitted, however when inside they acted normal and were diagnosed and “schizophrenia in remission” upon leave. This means the disorder was still presumed to be present but just not active even though they never had a mental disorder, this shows how easily stigmas can become attached. Overall the disadvantages out way the advantages for defining abnormality. Even though there are many disadvantages of the diagnoses it is essential so that the right treatment can be used to improve the person’s well being. Forming categories furthers our knowledge of each disorder and facilitates new information to be learnt. Only once a category has been formed can psychologists uncover the factors responsible for the disorder and devise treatments that are well suited. However the DSM is constantly improving and therefore can only get better, for example the latest version DSM-IV-TR has been tested by clinicians to ensure consistency of diagnoses. The DSM has improved from previous editions for example the symptoms in Axes I and II are now described in more detail such as laboratory findings. Another improvement is the use of scored interviews for collecting the information on a client. Something that will probably remain when defining people as abnormal is the stigma of “mentally ill”; however this is a fault due to society and the norms that govern it, not the psychologists who give the diagnoses.
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