Psychology is portrayed as a noble field where clinicians seek who help clients through the human suffering that they experience from psychiatric issues. There is controversy as to what constitutes human suffering to the extent that therapeutic and pharmacological interventions need to occur. The line between normal functioning or coping with the realities of life and psychiatric illness appears to blur further with every new addition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) from the American Psychiatric Association (APA). An example of this blurring is the proposed addition of Complicated Grief Disorder which has the potential to medicalize and dehumanize an adaptive process that occurs when one is bereft of a relationship. What is deemed abnormal by one generation, in one edition of the DSM can be totally revised in another edition. But what is abnormal and normal in our society at any given period?
The use of the terms abnormal and normal seems archaic when dealing with symptoms of mental illness given the mathematical origin of the terms. More appropriately, the terms adaptive and nonadaptive speak to the transient nature of the relativity in our thoughts, behavior, physical symptoms, and psychosocial interactions. Several individuals I work with have been institutionalized their entire lives, thus living for decades with no privacy and little safety from other residents and unscrupulous care givers. They display behaviors today that are described as maladaptive because the situation that they live in has changed and the old behavior has not changed.
For instance, a client has been institutionalized since for 31 of his 35 years of life. He hordes items such as garbage, food, and stolen property but he has learned these behaviors because of living in the situations he has lived in, where food was stolen from him at the dinner table or clothing was taken out of drawers while he slept. Stealing food and hoarding disgusting items in his dresser were adaptive at the time because it assured him that food or other items would less likely be taken from him. One new individual to our campus snorts liquids and eats his feces which, of course are described as abnormal for an adult male. However, as a child, this gentleman was severally malnourished by his grandmother for several years. Our hypothesis is that he learned to snort liquids out of his sheets when he urinated and began eating feces to combat starvation. Are these behaviors really abnormal? Yes, and they also functioned at one point in his life to keep him alive. How many symptoms of mental illness began as ways of coping with extreme life stressors, physical or psychic trauma, illness, and environmental problems?
Describing behavior, thinking, and interpersonal ways of relating as normal or abnormal contribute to the stigma our society attaches to patients that seek mental health treatment. Looking at people’s difficulties...