Pathologizing

A mother and her teen daughter sit on a couch while a therapist asks questions.Pathologizing is the practice of seeing a symptom as indication of a disease or disorder. In mental health, the term is often used to indicate over-diagnosis or the refusal to accept certain behavior as normal.

What Is Pathologizing?

Some critics inside and outside of the mental health field argue that therapists, psychologists, and psychiatrists tend to over-pathologize normal behavior. This can lead to over-diagnosis and excessive use of psychoactive drugs. For example, some advocates have argued that the increasing numbers of children diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity (ADHD) serve as evidence that people in the helping professions tend to pathologize normal childhood behavior.

Other examples of mental health professionals pathologizing may include:

  • Telling a person that all of his or her relationship problems are due to his or her mental health disorder
  • Refusing to answer questions and telling a person that his or her distrust of the process is part of a mental health problem
  • Overuse of psychotropic medications for conditions that may not require such treatment
  • The use of a diagnosis to control people, particularly children
  • Treating noncompliance with recommendations as evidence of a psychiatric disorder

Risks of Pathologizing

While some people’s behavior may indeed evidence a medical or mental health condition, no single condition or disorder can affect every single behavior or thought a person has, and pathologizing tends to negate the feelings, needs, and thoughts of people with mental health diagnoses.

Pathologizing can also, paradoxically, cause mental health issues to be treated less seriously. If large numbers of people in a population have a particular diagnosis, then the condition cannot be that serious. Treatment providers who pathologize their clients rather than listening may see less compliance with treatment recommendations and may not make accurate diagnoses. Pathologizing can also paralyze a person and make it difficult for him or her to make lifestyle changes. For example, if a psychiatrist tells a person that his or her difficulties in his/her marriage are due solely to his/her depression, he/she might be less likely to work on the marriage or leave an abusive spouse.

References:

  1. Horwitz, A. V., & Wakefield, J. C. (2007). The loss of sadness: How psychiatry transformed normal sorrow into depressive disorder. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  2. The Irish Times — All in our heads: Have we taken psychiatry too far? (n.d.). CCHR International RSS. Retrieved from http://www.cchrint.org/tag/pathologizing

Last Updated: 01-17-2018

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  • Yozefel

    Yozefel

    June 2nd, 2016 at 7:45 AM

    Please add me to your mailing list newsletter subscription.
    Thanks a lot

  • The GoodTherapy.org Team

    The GoodTherapy.org Team

    June 2nd, 2016 at 9:16 AM

    Hi Yozefel,
    Thank you for your interest in subscribing to The Good Therapy Blog! You can sign up for our mailing list here: https://www.goodtherapy.org/gt-newsletter-archive.html

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  • Evans D

    Evans D

    September 19th, 2019 at 12:49 AM

    That is very informative.

  • Mary

    Mary

    September 28th, 2019 at 8:36 AM

    Why arent children checked for learning difficulties, hidden learning needs prior to being diagnosed with spurious mental health Disorders. For instance children with Asynchronous Giftedness comprising Exceptional Ability with Disorder of Written Expression (ironically the higher the verbal ability the greater the disparity in written expression). Many children with this and or similar conditions are being misdiagnosed as lacking concentration and or being deliberately non compliant. Then there are children who are unable to explain that they are being abused because they think that “usual” behaviour / treatment is “normal” treatment. And children who are unable to explain anxiety from surreptitious bullying are wrongly diagnosed as suffering from (unnatural) anxiety. Reasearchers such as laura Hanbury investigation the high increase in diagnoses of ADHD have found that the symptoms of Child Abuse, e.g. hypervigilance with resulting inability to concentrate are being misinterpreted as hyperactivity and poor concentration. It is criminal to diagnose a child without full and proper investigation – it is criminal to diagnose a child on the basis of checklist responses by his / her abusing parent and or class teacher.

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