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When considering how to address the issue of abnormality, the arena is such a complex and vast issue thus it would be necessary to assign the essay towards addressing the historical background of abnormality. The primary question which needs to be explored and analysed is ‘what is abnormality?’ Such a definition has inspired many conflicting debates within the realm of psychology as there exists no agreed definition.
Therefore to address the essay question the essay will explore a range of definitions, applying critiques from alternative viewpoints further,considering the implications of being labelled ‘abnormal’ in society.
Firstly, it is necessary, before discussing the difficulties in defining the boundaries of abnormality, to consider societal views of abnormality in its historical context. Throughout the essay the terms abnormal behaviour and mental illness will be used interchangeably.
Throughout history the search for causes for abnormal behaviour can be originated to the primitive era, where demonology, “the doctrine that an evil being, such as the devil, maydwell within a person and control his or her mind and body” (Davison + Neale, 2001, P.
7), was very much viewed as the cause of abnormal behaviour, with often treatments involving exorcisms or an approach which would be viewed inhumane by modern standards today. Contrary to this belief that abnormal behaviour was attributed to spirits, the Ancient Greeks and Romans speculated on a very many number of conflicting perspectives. They presumed that abnormality was caused by disturbances within the natural body. Hipprocrates, (460- 367 BC) regarded that abnormal behaviour originated from the imbalance of body fluids, yellow bile, black bile, blood and phlegm.
Through his writings Hipprocrates was envisaged as one of the earliest proponents of the somaogenic view as he regarded that abnormality derived from within the body. Aristotle, (384-322 BC) acknowledged the belief that disturbances within the body was the causation of abnormal behaviour, but he played emphasis on the fact that the heart was the casual agent of abnormal behaviour. Despite these beliefs, by the end of the fifteenth century abnormality was deemed to be at the hands of demonic powers, with many being labelled as witches, accused of causing pestilence and social unrest.
Such actions, initiated by the Catholic and Protestant churches resulted in numerous arrests and executions. Although during the eighteenth century torturing those deemed, as ‘abnormal’ no longer stood as common practice, they were instead confined to Asylums, where they were often chained and represented as a means of tourist attractions.
Changes to the recognition of attitudes of those perceived as ‘abnormal’ was facilitated through the effects of Philippe Pinel, (1745-1826) who is regarded as an early proponent of the humanitarian treatment for those suffering from abnormal behaviour. “He believed that the mental patients in his care were essentially normal people who should be approached with compassion and understanding and treated with dignity as individual human beings” (Davison + Neale, 2001, P. 11), but such a belief was only reserved to those of upper class status, those of lower class status were still treated and perceived as inhumane beings. Ironically through the efforts of Dorothea Dix, (1802-1877) mental hospitals were built to care for those who were mentally ill, proposing the principle that the public should have the responsibility for the mentally ill. As portrayed, the changing historical views of abnormality has very much developed differentiating interpretations over time.
There is also a significant link between abnormality and culture, as it has an influential and reflective nature on how abnormal behaviour is perceived and defined. “Culture can be defined in many ways, but one aspect which is part of most definitions is a set of shared meanings within a group” (Smith + Bond, 1999 cited in Glassman, 2000, P. 410), thus these shared meanings very much reflect our attitudes and experiences of abnormality.
Attitudes very much emanate from people’s values and moral beliefs, which are embedded within our cultures, socialising individuals to conform to those given norms and values, reinforcing our interpretations of what we perceive as ‘normal’ or ‘abnormal’ behaviour. What is perceived as healthy ‘normal’ behaviour in one culture can be perceived ill and ‘abnormal’ in another.
To exemplify, amongst the Bena Bena people in New Guinea, the men are affected by episodes of deafness and aggression. Such behaviour is conducted on their wives and children, displaying threatening gestures and waving arrows and clubs. Once the episode has passed there is no accusations of blame on the individual. Thus within the western culture this behaviour would be considerably perceived are ‘abnormal’ behaviour, but what is merely portrayed is that, “specific cultures conform to the behavioural patterns that cultures expect and encourage” (Gallagher, 1980, P. 23).
Culture can also affect mental health, due to the restrictions it places on individuals to conform to the social roles, which are expected of them. To exemplify, a woman’s role in western cultures is socially conceptualised around the notion of childbearing and childrearing, thus when a woman reaches the menopause and experiences depression many believe it is the result of the conformed female role, as there are no other channels available, for which satisfaction can be achieved if childbearing is no longer possible. Although the relationship between mental illness and religion is contested, as Freud held the view “that religion is an obsessional neurosis used by people as a means of repeating infantile experiences” (Gallagher, 1980, P. 209).
A Study initiated by Roberts and Myers, (1954) reveals the prevalence of mental illness amongst three religious classifications, Protestants, Catholics and Jews. Protestants represented 31 per cent of the psychiatric population, Catholics represented 57 per cent, noticeably with a high proportion, 68 per cent suffering from drug and alcohol addiction and 71.
5 per cent suffering, from epilepsy. Jews were over represented in the psychiatric population, 12.5 per cent compared to their number in the general population, 9.5 per cent. Much of this was related to a high rate of neurosis, but remarkably no Jews suffered from alcohol and drug addiction. Such an explanation for a high rate of neurosis is “that Jewish parents provide extremely ambitious goals for their children, it is unclear whether a failure to achieve these goals produces neurosis or whether neurosis produces the failure” (Gallagher, 1980, P. 212). The essay will now attempt to define abnormality and evaluate the problems associated with such classification.
Is a question, which indeed encompasses wide disagreement and a challenge to provide a definition, which is widely accepted. The Oxford Dictionary defines abnormality as something which is “not normal” (Oxford Dictionary, 2001), but such definition is unclear because what is normal? And who judges what is normal behaviour? Several characteristics, which most authorities agree as key components of abnormal behaviour is statistical infrequency, which assumes that any behaviour, which is statistically infrequent, is regarded as abnormal.
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