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How do psychologists define abnormal behaviour.doc


									     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

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