Abnormal Psychology and Perception of Mental Illnesses

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Abnormal psychology is a term defined by being statistically deviant from the norm and definitions and have changed considerable amounts over the past few centuries. Even today there are debates to what is deemed to be ideal mental health. Within psychology we try and justify behaviour to a mixture of genetic and environmental factors, however this can be difficult assess due to the changing of societal norms and concepts.

Within cultures there are different sets of norms which can affect the perception of abnormality worldwide. This makes us question if what we consider normal within our Westernised culture is considered abnormal elsewhere. For example, one of our westernised beliefs is to be independent and self-achieving, however in collectivist cultures such as Japan it would be considered selfish. In Western cultures, Personal goals have priority over group goals in individualism, but they are subordinated to the collective goals in collectivism (Triandis, 1989; Yamaguchi, 1994). In some cultures there is the challenge of conflict between' self-interest and the collective interest, individualists find it permissible to give priority to self-interest, whereas collectivists feel obliged to give priority to collective interests (Parsons, 1951). However, it’s not to say that one culture is abnormal to the other but they just have differing norms. When assessing other cultures it can be common that researchers suffer from ethnocentrism as they perceive their own culture to be the ‘ideal culture’ however this can affect research and make it subjective.

When talking about the ‘norm' we need to consider that norms have changed over a period of time. What is deemed acceptable today most probably was not considered acceptable decades ago. For example in the Victorian Era it was socially unacceptable for people to have sex before marriage. Men were vigorously counselled to conserve vital health by avoiding fornication, masturbation and nocturnal emissions (for which a variety of devices were invented) and by rationing sex within marriage. (Vamacuk, 2018) In comparison to modern day it is not socially unacceptable to perform sexual acts outside of marriage, However some parts of the world still have derogatory views on those who decide to go against this as some places still hold strong religious beliefs.

Another example of abnormality changing throughout time is homosexuality in the 20th century, compared to homosexuality now. According to the DSM previously men were mentally diseased and in order to cure this they were given medication as if homosexuality could be treated the same way as a physical ailment. Homosexuality was considered a crime with men being sent to prison for being attracted to the same sex. In a modern-day context, being a homosexual is not viewed as a disease and There are currently only 25 countries that allow same-sex couples to marry (Businessinsidercom, 2018) In order to understand the concept of abnormality we must investigate the implications of treatment and consider a range of historical and cultural concepts in order to fully understand.

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In psychology and researching into other cultures we should focus on the actual tools we use to assess and diagnose mental health disorders. The DSM 5 can lead to implications especially when people are diagnosed with the wrong disorder they can undergo incorrect treatment. When researching we should consider an emic and etic approach. Emic theory is looking at something within a culture and from their viewpoint and etic theory is looking from an outsider’s viewpoint and mainly basing knowledge off the observer’s viewpoint. So, an Emic viewpoint would be that mental disorders are not transferable across all cultures and an etic viewpoint would view the opposite and see that all mental disorders are universal and can be applied to all cultures.

An example of Emic theory was a study done by Church and Katigbak to see if there are culture specific personality dimensions where they conducted numerous studies in the Philippines and compared personality structures against Western measures such as Eysenck’s PEN model and Costa and McRae’s Big Five OCEAN model and also indigenously constructed scales (Church and Katibak 1989). They found that the OCEAN model factors were validated in the Philippines showing the personality models have cross cultural generalisability. However, some social constructs are more specific to the Filipino culture and are not covered by The Big 5 therefore when we research into personality structures and abnormal behaviour we should take into account that although certain models are transferable it is difficult for it to be directly specific to each individual culture. Culture-bound syndromes are suggested by emic theorists which are disorders that only apply to one culture. Etic theorists try and apply culture bound syndromes to a Westernised alternative.

For example, in India there is Ascetic syndrome which is defined by social withdrawal, a large amount of weight loss and a lack of care for appearance within adolescents (Neki 1972). Etic theorists would classify this as depressive symptoms under the DSM 5 however the Etic theory needs to consider the context of the situation as India is a collectivist culture and there are different social norms and expectations upon young people in India compared to young people in Westernised cultures. Another example of a culture bound syndrome is in Japan people suffer from Taijin Kyofusho which is defined by the fear of offending people through your appearance or body odour (Lilienfeld, 2009)

Etic theorists would diagnose this as social anxiety disorder, however in Japan they are more concerned with avoiding conflict and getting on with each other as a community more than people in a Western community, so Japan is more sensitive as a culture and this needs to be taken into account when trying to come up with treatment options from a westernised viewpoint. Hunters from Greenland suffer from kayak angst, which is feelings of panic out in the ocean and having intense feelings to seek security back on land. Etic theorists would see that it shares the same symptoms of panic disorder with agoraphobia, which is extreme fear of situations where we cannot escape particularly in situations of overwhelming fear (Lilienfeld, 2009)

Early assumptions of abnormality believed that it was caused by evil spirits within Europe and South America (Hawking 2000) and they attempted to cure this by using a procedure called trephination. A stone instrument is used to cut away at the skull and is used to treat hallucinations. This was supposedly meant to scare off evil spirits as abnormal behaviour was related to demonic possessions. Within Greek times, Hippocrates believed that illnesses had natural causes and that abnormality was caused by internal physical problems He believed that there was an imbalance of the four humours; too much yellow bile caused mania, excessive amounts of black bile caused melancholia and in order to treat this, Hippocrates attempted to level out the imbalances of bile (Hawking 2000).

Homosexuality has also come a long way since the beginning of history. Boswell argues, in his book Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, that many passages taken today where same-sex acts are described as “unnatural” is perceived out of the ordinary rather than immoral (Boswell, 1980). At the end of the twelfth through the fourteenth centuries there was a rise in intolerance towards homosexual sex. Natural law was enforced more within Western traditions. A sodomite was understood as act-defined, rather than as a type of person. People who engaged in heterosexual sodomy were classed as sodomites. The punishment for these acts resulted to being burned to death or beheaded for sodomy with a spouse (Greenberg, 1988, 277). The gender of the two people was not the main issue in some circumstances however, some medieval theologians thought same-sex sodomy is the worst type of sexual crime. In the 19th century there was a significant reduction for punishments for sodomy, sodomy was removed from the list of capital offence within countries where homosexuality was still criminalised. Medicine and psychological approaches competed with religion over the laws of sexuality. This historical shift is progressive as a sick person was less blameful than a sinner or criminal (Chauncey, 1989). So, homosexuality at the beginning of the 19th century was considered more of a mental illness rather than a crime.

The treatment of mental illness today is constantly changing and improving, however there is still a stigma surrounding the term. With the likes of counselling, therapy, CBT and medication used to treat mental health, there are still derogatory views that we associate with mental health. Nine out of ten people with mental health problems say that stigma and discrimination have a negative effect on their lives (Mentalhealthorguk, 2015) The 1996 General Social Survey (GSS) was given to 1444 adults in the US. The results found that over half of the people that filled out the survey did not want to: Work with, socialise, or have a family member marry a person with a mental illness (Martin 2000) Although to some extent we have moved forward in terms of accepting mental illness, those that are viewed as abnormal can be seen to cause shame.

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