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Stories about the lives we've made

module:Measuring the unmeasurable

An introduction to psychology

page:Problems with the definition of mental illness

Look at the following activity, which attempts to apply appropriate definitions to a variety of examples of behaviour.



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When trying to complete the activity, it becomes increasingly obvious that the definition of mental illness is by no means exact and is subject to interpretation. The following paragraphs explore some of the disadvantages in accurately defining mental illness. Perhaps you encountered some of these when applying the definitions. These disadvantages have led some to state that Psychiatry is far from being an exact science.

Societal attitudes to mental illness

The norms defined by society are widely subjective and often related to moral standards which vary over time as social attitudes change. This approach to norms is at the root of many serious abuses of human rights. According to the libertarian humanist Thomas Szasz, the term 'mental illness' is a form of social control - a subjective concept which is used to label those who do not conform to the norms.

For example, until recently in the Soviet Union, those who dissented from the Communist Party line could find themselves being diagnosed with schizophrenia; in the USA 'conscientious objectors' to the Vietnam War often found themselves diagnosed as mentally ill.

Not all individuals who have a mental disorder are aware of their failure to function. Schizophrenics are a good case in point - often denying that they have a problem. The definition of dysfunction is subjective and dependent upon culture and social context.

Cultural relativism is the term used to refer to these value judgements that are relative to individual cultural contexts. Absolute statements about what is normal or abnormal cannot be made.

Fernando (1991), writing on race, culture and ethnicity, argues that psychiatric disorders which are seen in Western (white, Caucasian) societies are on an entirely different plane from those seen in non-Western (non-white, 'developing') societies. Practitioners tend to concur with this approach, and would approach symptoms in the West with standard practices and see those encountered in other cultures as anomalies in terms of standard Western treatment.

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