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Jeremy Posner's picture

The Subjectivity of Abnormality

 My immediate reaction to the in-class discussion about the fundamental subjectivity of perception and of the standards that we apply to everything from manners to the laws of the universe was to think back to past discussions I’ve been involved with about the subjectivity of the standards applied to behavior, and in the definition of abnormal behavior.  The entire field of mental health revolves around the notion that there are certain standards of normal behavior and that behavior that falls outside of the boundaries of these standards is abnormal, and depending upon the nature of that abnormality and its effects, it may require treatment to achieve a more normal behavioral pattern.  Some attempt has been made to recognize that the standards with which behavior is evaluated are not absolute or objective, the most significant of these (I think) within the field of mental health is the requirement that for any diagnosis of a mental disorder to be made that an individual not only display a pattern of abnormal behavior, but that that behavior negatively impact their ability to function.  This isn’t a complete solution to the problem of the subjectivity of mental health standards in general and to any number of criteria for diagnoses in particular, but it is a clear acknowledgement that the most important component of a mental disorder isn’t that it produces behavior that might be considered unusual but that it negatively impact the standard of living of its owner.

            This is probably venturing into territory that will be covered in next week’s discussion of depression but our standards of normalcy are often not even in line with what might be most “healthy” and certainly not shared across cultures.  Studies have shown that depressed individuals are often more accurate in their evaluations of their abilities and appearance than non-depressed individuals (who have a tendency towards a positive evaluative bias) and there is a fair amount of contention whether the often disproportionate self-esteem and self-confidence that is encouraged in western culture is actually a positive influence.  So the treatment of mental disorders is often something of a gray area conceptually, when you’re not dealing with a very serious disruption in behavior it may be difficult to concretely identify a whether a particular person really is disordered, and the collection of symptoms that define various disorders not only tend to overlap extensively, but may or may not constitute discrete and specific states of disorder.  At the same time, particularly when dealing with Mental Health theoretically, it’s important to keep in mind how much good treatment can do for a person, how disruptive mental health problems can be, and now badly many want help, though that need cannot always be easily expressed.   


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