Abnormal psychology is a measure of functionality. If one is able to function in society, hold down a job and have at least minimal social skills, they are considered to be within the normal range. One can be quite eccentric and still be functional and considered normal.
You are considered abnormal if you are unable to relate to others or to society as a whole. If you have debilitating fears or phobias, delusions or hallucinations, ideas of reference or other emotionally crippling thought patterns, you will likely be considered psychologically abnormal.
Of course abnormal psychology, as outlined in the DSM IV, runs the gamut from mild mental and emotional problems to the very severe in which a person might be a danger to themselves or others. All of these are treated differently depending upon their etiology and the prognosis.
Some psychological disabilities can be worked around because they tend to be chemical in nature and somewhat predictable, like bipolar disorder (formerly manic-depressive).
One man, for example, actually became manic every other day. Neither his mania nor his depression was severe. On his manic days he was actually a very good salesman. He was not very functional on his depressed days. So he just worked on his manic days and stayed home every other day. In this manner he was able to live a relatively “normal” life.
Culture & Abnormality
Functionality is related to cultural norms and social mores. What might be considered dysfunctional in one culture or time period could be quite normal in another. The key to abnormality is how one functions in their cultural environment.
Sacrificing animals (or even humans) to various gods and goddesses has been a part of many religions for millennia. If one were to perform such a sacrifice today in the modern west, you would certainly be suspected of behaving abnormally. You might also find yourself breaking the law.
And laws themselves are culturally influenced. Looking back at some of the laws on the books in early America can be an amusing and enlightening experience. Some of these strange laws are still on the book. Were the lawmakers abnormal back then?
Breaking the law and committing serious crimes can be a sign of pathology. The psychopath lies, cheats, and steals without any qualms. Even murder causes no guilt or remorse. Many psychotic breaks result in behavior that gets the attention of the authorities.
The treatment of these abnormal responses to life tends to be through drugs and/or some form of therapy. As with any physical illness, the more serious the dysfunction, the more difficult it is to treat. Also, the longer a patient suffers some form of mental illness, the less likely they are to have a successful outcome.
In many cases, the use of drugs is not curative but simply removes symptoms or covers them up. Only those illnesses that are definitely chemically related, like bipolar disorder, can be mitigated by drugs alone.
Both the diagnosis and treatment of some of the hyperactive disorders in children are creating some controversy in psychology. The increase in the number of children with hyperactive diagnoses brings some experts to the conclusion that children may be over-diagnosed and therefore also over-medicated.
Fifty or 60 years ago, the kind of behavior that is being diagnosed as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) today, would have been considered within the norm of behavior back then.
Having worked with mentally ill adults for some four years, I am intimately familiar with the various behaviors and thought processes that this population exhibits. I also know that healing is possible for the mentally ill but unfortunately is rare.