‘Abnormal behaviour’ is socially constructed through culture- and context-embedded concepts of normativity; the extent to which behaviour is considered abnormal is often dependent on the perception and capacity of others (Emerson & Einfeld, 2011).
The perceived characteristics of the individual may also define the extent to which their behaviour is considered abnormal. For example, differences in gender role expectations may explain why women are more commonly diagnosed with anxiety disorder than are men (Kessler et al, 2006). Whilst contextual factors are vital in defining abnormality, there are shared commonalities between professionals in their perception of abnormal behaviours and physiologies based in white privilege and colonisation.
Mental health professionals are trained to make diagnosis of abnormalities using the frameworks of the Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM) and International Classification of Diseases (ICD). This is problematic as both frameworks take a behaviourist approach which does not address issues of culture and often takes a Western perspective in recognising and treating ‘symptoms’ (See: What does the DSM say about Autism? See also: what does the DSM say about ADHD?).
Childhood is full of weird and wonderful behaviours whilst children explore the self and the boundaries between the self and the outside world. This life stage is full of intense social and emotional experiences to which some of the responses can, and perhaps should, be abnormal. This can be said of some adult experiences too, especially ones based in trauma. Labeling these individuals as abnormal can be an excuse for services and individuals to further stigmatise them. This stigma can affect an individual’s developing cognitive, social and emotional competencies, making abnormality a self-fulfilling prophecy (Cacioppo & Freberg, 2015). Similar problems can be seen with functioning labels which can impede access to support for some and dismiss the positive attributes of others.
Ideas of abnormality become less appropriate as society becomes more knowingly neurodivergent. Many more individuals are seeking out and receiving late diagnosis for autism, ADHD, and learning disabilities, and more people are affected by mental health issues. Anxiety, often influenced by environmental, social and cultural factors now affects over 20% of children and adolescents in the US (Merikangas et al, 2010). Untreated anxiety in early childhood can persist into adulthood, often ensuring that these individuals develop more mental health issues and embody more abnormal behaviours and identities.
Mental health issues are multi-faceted and reflect the relationship between innate temperaments, hereditary conditions, and social and cultural factors. Concepts of abnormality are similarly context-embedded and are often defined by the characteristics of the individual and how they are perceived by others. Cultural and medical concepts which uphold ideas of abnormality cause greater issues for people who are historically marginalised including children, women, trans people and People of Colour. The label of abnormality for some can mean help and support, but for many more it would likely cause a lifetime of stigmatisation and ostracisation.
Cacioppo, J.T., & Freberg, L.A. (2013). Discovering psychology: the science of the mind. Wadsworth CENGAGE Learning.
Emerson, E., & Einfeld, S.L. (2011). Challenging behaviour. Cambridge University Press.
Kessler, R.C., Chiu, W.T., Jin, R., Ruscio, A.M., Shear, K., & Walkers, E.E. (2006). The epidemiology of panic attacks, panic disorders and agoraphobia in the National Comorbidity Survey replication. Archives of General Psychiatry, 63, 415-424.
Merikangas, K.R., He, J.P., Burnstein, M., Swanson, S.A, Avenevoli, S., & Cui, L. (2010). Lifetime prevalence of mental disorders in U.S. adolescents: results from the National Comorbidity Survey Replication—Adolescent Supplement (NCS-A). Journal of American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 49 (10), 980–9.