Psychology: Are we thinking about it all wrong?

When you start university, people say you will find a class or prof that changes your life. This is my last semester of my last year, and up until now, I didn’t believe it.

It wasn’t until I sat down in Michelle Lafrance’s Abnormal Psychology course, which I am admittedly taking for the credits, that I realized this was possible. It has changed the way I think about mental illness in ways I never expected.

I used to be among the millions who turned to social media and posted about mental illnesses on Bell Let’s Talk day. I shared my own story of being diagnosed with major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder two years ago.

If I knew what I learned the day after I made that post, I may have acted a bit differently.

I would have said talking about mental illness is a good thing, but the way we do it is all wrong. Calling it mental illness, and labelling those who are dealing with it, might just be causing more harm than good.

Why? Because the way I’m learning, and the way Lafrance teaches her class, isn’t the way the mainstream views psychology. And really, at the beginning of the course I thought I was just going to play along with it, get the credits, and graduate without thinking twice. I guess I was wrong.

The critical approach uses different language, and non-diagnosis-based evaluations of the person.

Taking a step back from that Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) that all psychology students hold so dear, you realize what “mental illness” really is.

The DSM is mostly black and white; is there a disorder, yes or no? In reality, it “medicalizes” distress and experience. It is the human reaction to distress as opposed to a built-in state of mind.

I’m labelled by what some people vote belongs in a big book. There were no objective signs that tell me that I have to be diagnosable.

Why do I have anxiety? Because I’m anxious. Why am I anxious? Because I have anxiety. It’s a non-stop circular response to distress I’m feeling as a student taking six courses, working upwards of 25 hours on average a week and trying to maintain extracurricular activities.

The mainstream approach we all know ignores the social and political contexts in which we live: A Western society. The classic approach sees it easier to fix the person, rather than take a look at society and stand up for the increasing number of people who have mental illness.

This course blew my mind and changed everything I have learned about psychology in the last four years. So now it brings me to these questions: With this information, how are we supposed to look at mental illness or distress? And what is the right way to do it?

Mental illnesses are supposed to be deemed “abnormal” by the DSM, but the more I learn, the more normal reactions to distress seem.

For instance, a child having three or more temper tantrums a week for three months are the criteria for disruptive mood dysregulation disorder. To me this seems like a normal thing for a child to do. Or that symptoms of PMS are criteria for premenstrual dysphoric disorder. Or caffeine withdrawal disorder is a thing.

Since when is having feelings, or being a kid, abnormal?

Maybe we see mental illness as black-and-white disorders, but in reality the human psyche is much more complex. It’s time to step back and take a fresh look on what we think of as normal.


  1. I agree in part with what you’re getting at, but if you spent any time with a child who may meet the diagnostic criteria for DMDD, you would realize their tantrums are far out of the realm of normal childhood behavior. I have 4 children, including one on the autism spectrum. He has not been a problem to take out in public since he was about 5. By contrast, my oldest dictated our entire family’s social life, relationships with family, holiday celebrations, and really every moment of our lives, until she was about 12 and we found a great therapist for her. She threw hours-long tantrums almost daily from the time she was a preschooler, over things like needing to comb or brush her hair (at age 11), for example. I wanted to comment because we endured so many years of people telling us, “Oh, my daughter is moody too,” when we had to decline an invitation. They meant well, but it dismissed the many nights we and her 3 siblings had to listen to her scream from 9 until after midnight, and the years of holidays that were ruined by her inability to cope with any kind of frustration whatsoever. I don’t want other parents who are seaching for info on DMDD to arrive at this page and see their suffering dismissed as normal childhood behavior.


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