What is Abnormal Psychology?


By David Joel Miller.

How is Abnormal Psychology related to mental illness?

Psychology Books

Abnormal Psychology – Freud
Photo courtesy of Pixabay.com

Abnormal Psychology used to be a chapter in psychology tests, sometimes it was a separate class. Personally, I am becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the whole idea of normal versus abnormal when it comes to psychology.

We used to think there were two kinds of people, normal and abnormal. Presumably the abnormal had something wrong with them and the rest of people were just fine. The more we study people the more convinced we become that there is a very wide range of what is normal.

Wikipedia has an extended discussion of Abnormal Psychology, though as a note to students be careful with this article, it is not up to date on the recent changes taking place in the field of mental health. For example, the DSM-5 has eliminated the use of the five axes system.

The working definition Wikipedia is using, at least as of today, appear to be more in the realm of “unusual behavior” as opposed to what gets diagnosed as a mental or emotional illness. In psychology, there is this tendency to look at behaviors as either adaptive or maladaptive. In mental health, we think that “adaptive” may well be in the eye of the beholder.

Think back to that “bell-shaped curve.”  When people are so variable how are we to tell how abnormal is abnormal? I have written elsewhere about how along the way psychology and counseling, mental health, in particular, got a divorce. Rather than try to figure out whether atypical ways of thinking were “abnormal” we are looking at – does this different way of thinking help you, as in Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, or is this abnormality hurting you.

So the criteria for calling the behavior a mental illness is not it’s abnormality, but does this behavior, normal or not bother you, interfere with your working, school or relationships or does it interfere with other important areas of your life, like hobbies and so on.

The criteria for mental illness are about functioning and how do you feel about yourself. Those kinds of things. It is not about are you left-handed or extroverted.

People are not abnormal all the time about everything.

You can be very different about one thing and quite typical, I hesitate to use the word normal here, about other things. People can move around on this continuum we call recovery and wellness. So being abnormal about one thing, today, does not mean this abnormality applies to everything all the time. Even if it did, this is not necessarily a bad thing unless you think it is.

 Will studying Abnormal Psychology fix you?

Lots of students, typically first-year ones, find they are having emotional problems and they take a class in psychology, maybe become psychology majors, thinking this will “fix” them. They learn a lot of stuff but usually, none of this helps with the problems they are having.

Much of what you experience in life has to do with developmental stages. That high school to college transition can be a difficult time. Lots of stress, competition to do well. There are also those things about getting into relationships, trying out drugs and alcohol and figuring out who you are.

Some people get through, pass this hurdle, and some do not. Rarely does knowing that you are introverted or extroverted or exploring your thinking, knowing, perceiving, ENTI or other psychological theories help explain your depression or anxiety.

That normal think just does not always explain why some people do what they do. Really odd people become great successes and very normal people get angry about their partner’s behavior and show up at work sites with guns.

If you are feeling “different” consider talking with a professional who can explain what kinds of abnormal are OK and what kinds deserve treatment. No, you do not need to be crazy to get counseling. In fact, if you are having problems it makes sense to get help.

These “What is” sometimes “What are” posts are my efforts to explain terms commonly used in Mental Health, Clinical Counseling, Substance Use Disorder Counseling, Life Coaching and related disciplines in a plain language way. For the more technical versions please consult the DSM or other appropriate references.

More “What is” posts will be found at What is.

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For more about David Joel Miller and my work in the areas of mental health, substance abuse and Co-occurring disorders see the about the author page. For information about my other writing work beyond this blog check out my Google+ page or the Facebook author’s page, up under David Joel Miller. Posts to the “books, trainings and classes” category will tell you about those activities. If you are in the Fresno California area, information about my private practice is at counselorfresno.com. A list of books I have read and can recommend is over at Recommended Books

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