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.
- Horwitz, A. V., & Wakefield, J. C. (2007). The loss of sadness: How psychiatry transformed normal sorrow into depressive disorder. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- 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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