What is failing to function adequately?
Rosenhan & Seligman (1989) suggested that psychological abnormality should be defined as a range of characteristics that suggest a person is failing to function adequately in their daily life. Essentially this means that they may not be able to adapt to life healthily, may be experiencing personal distress, may show irrational or unpredictable behaviour, or onlookers may be uncomfortable when observing their behaviour. The fewer abnormal features a person displays, then the more normal they can be considered.
- Observer discomfort. Behaviour is governed by unspoken rules and common understandings between people. When these rules are broken, for example standing too close to another person or not making eye contact when conversing, then observers notice them and may feel uncomfortable.
- Personal distress. People suffering psychological abnormality often report they are in discomfort or are suffering. This does not always mean they are abnormal however, as a normal grief reaction would feature suffering often to a severe extent.
- Maladaptive behaviour. Being able to adapt appropriately to new situations enables a person to reach their personable goals in life, for example to succeed at work, to have a good relationship, etc. Being unable to adapt would prevent this and so could be considered abnormal. However, it may be that the inability to adapt is caused by lack of knowledge or understanding about a situation rather than by psychological abnormality.
- Irrational or unexpected behaviours can often be regarded as abnormal.
Limitations of failure to function adequately
- Context. Behaviour must be considered in context before it can be judged as failure to function adequately. For example, going on a hunger strike would cause personal distress and observer discomfort but it is not necessarily psychologically abnormal.
- Failing to function adequately may be due to situational pressures rather than psychological abnormality. If a person loses their job and is unable to get a new one then they may be enable to look after their family, but this may be due to the economic situation rather than because they are unable to adapt to the situation.
- People with psychological disorders may well be able to function adequately. People with clinical depression, for example, are usually able to work, look after their families, behave rationally, and adapt to new situations.
What is ideal mental health?
According to Jahoda (1958) it is more useful to define abnormality in terms of understanding what is normal behaviour rather than abnormal. Jahoda listed 6 characteristics of ideal mental health, and not possessing these would be seen as abnormal according to this definition.
- Being in touch with one's own identity and feelings.
- Resistance to stress.
- Focused on the future and self-actualisation.
- Function as an autonomous individual and recognise their own needs.
- Have an accurate perception of reality, and be neither overly pessimistic nor overly optimistic.
- Be able to master the environment and adapt to change.
Limitations of ideal mental health
- Self-actualisation is a theoretically ideal concept that very few people are actually able to achieve. In order to self-actualise a person must reach the pinnacle of their abilities, ambitions and desires in life, but the majority of people comfortably settle for a situation somewhat below self-actualisation.
- Being resistant to stress and not suffering from its consequences is an ideal state of mental health, however stress can actually be beneficial in some circumstances. Many sports people, actors, public speakers, etc actually perform better under a degree of stress.
- Self-actualisation, personal autonomy, and recognising one's own needs are particularly relevant to Western or individualistic cultures. Non-western or collectivist cultures value the success of a community rather than the individuals within it, yet they are not lacking in ideal mental health because of this.
What are social norms?
Social norms are accepted ways of behaving within a society. They are the unwritten rules that members of a society regard as being normal and acceptable, and any deviation from them can be regarded as abnormal behaviour. Examples include ways of dressing, such as women wearing feminine clothing and men wearing masculine clothing, not appearing naked in public, saying 'please' and 'thank you', opening doors for women and elderly people etc. Social norms may, however, vary between cultures - clothing is an example of this as some African tribes wear very little clothing whereas Western cultures keep certain areas of the body covered at all times.
The problem with defining abnormality as deviation from social norms is that probably the majority of behaviour that deviates from social norms is unlikely to represent mental illness. Eccentric behaviours, for example the case of John Slater (Weekes & James, 1995) who lived in a cave that was often flooded by seawater because the open space helped him think more clearly, are not necessarily abnormal to the extent that health is harmed.
Limitations of social norms
- Eccentric behaviours, such as running naked across a rugby pitch during a rugby match, are not necessarily abnormal.
- Criminal behaviours, such as committing fraud, violate social norms, but they are not necessarily indicative of psychological abnormality.
- Behaviours need to be considered in context before a judgement can be made about how abnormal they may be.
- Social norms vary with time. Something that was considered abnormal 20 years ago may not be abnormal today.
- Labelling violations of social norms as abnormal is open to abuse. For example, in 1950s USA it was considered abnormal to have communist views and people may have been sent to mental health institutions for having such views.
- Different cultures behave in different ways in the same situation. Western cultures may experience a different social display of grief for a bereavement when compared with Indian or African cultures.