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The Relativity Of Normality And Abnormality

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By Divya Gupta:

I am “abnormal” because to others around me I don’t look normal which they infer from the way I dress abnormally, in an out of fashion manner, don’t conduct myself normally, speak in a language that only I understand and not others, think abnormally not fitting others’ expectations. However what if I do feel normal from within because I am living up to the standards I have set for myself and the world I have created for myself in which other’s expectations don’t matter, basically living in my own reality which I truly believe in? Then how is it that others are determining standards of normality for me and in return make me change my beliefs about whether I am actually normal or not?

I first came across the definition of normality of behavior in my 12th standard text book which defined it as a state of mind, exhibited in behavior that is culturally accepted in accordance with social norms and that does not cause a hindrance in a person’s adaptability to the environment. Some people define normality in terms of being in touch with reality, but what if for a person his/her current state is his/her reality. Abnormality on the other hand was defined in terms of the 4 D’s- deviance, distress, debilitating, and dysfunction, something away from the normal. The definition of abnormality however is not limited to only the causes created by the person but also the effects that a person receives from the environment in the form of labels of being mad and deviant accompanied with ostracizing behavior, further adding to the stigma of the person and causing further “abnormality” in the person.

This is where the definitions and the distinctions between normality and abnormality become extremely problematic, leading to students of psychology like us to discuss it as a topic. It is important not only for our understanding but also to be able to understand how we all become a part of this process of labeling and ostracizing people without understanding its consequences for others, without understanding that an absolute does not really exist.

Actually there is nothing in the field of psychology that can be defined as a universal truth, as long as it concerns human beings, nothing can be defined in absolute terms and be generalized to all: having a positive attitude towards everything in life may be true for me but not to a lot of people sitting in this room. Hence, when we use words to describe terms like normality or abnormality which are terms largely to do with human conduct behavior and thought, we realize that the words chosen limit our experience of the term. So many times you must have felt that you are experiencing sadness but cannot define the dynamic nature of the experience and its complexity in terms of words and hence cannot possibly make others understand what the reality of our experience actually is. This is what definitions do to human experience; they limit the description of the whole experience and may end up portraying the wrong idea by focus on an irrelevant aspect of an experience. This is how texts such as the DSM IV describe “abnormal human experiences”, the moment they define it, they leave no room for further considerations and lead to labeling of people. I used to think that my obsessive and compulsive habit of straightening my bed at night before I slept was normal, till I became a psychology student and came to know about obsessive compulsive disorder which is an abnormality.

Secondly I would like to say that for years psychologists have tried to understand the working of the mind, although it is intangible, it has been studied for years through various processes which also means that the mind is a part of the human being just like any other organ of the body. A person suffering from tuberculosis in the conventionally “defined” sense is abnormal because the disease is serious and debilitating, causing distress to oneself and others because the disease could spread, makes the person dysfunctional and deviant in the sense “bodily different” from others. If a physical, organic disease has the same consequences for the society as well as the individual within the society, just as a disease of the mind, then why are the two things treated differently? It is not that the mental diseases are more serious than physical one, in which case the person should be provided with more compassion than the one with a physical disorder, which we all know is not what actually happens. The answer to this lies only in the lack of awareness of lay people about diseases of the mind, which are considered bizarre because they are not well known among people, make people behave in ways that are not understood by others, and engage in activities that no one else would. So does this mean that a person with a disease of the mind is considered abnormal only because his/her condition is not well accepted and understood by all as compared to a physical disease? Does this also mean that then normality of behavior is matter of acceptance of an individual’s behavior by everyone present around, which is also not constant because it is context dependent- for example, wearing shorts in cold weather would gather more stares than wearing “normal” winter clothes. Since the concept of normality is not constant and absolutely true, all a person does in one’s life is try to fit in; isn’t that what adaptation means? This means that it is actually the concept of normality that even brings about a need to adapt to the changing environmental demands and needs.

And lastly normality comes close to the notion of trust as a protective mechanism that prevents chaos and disorder by providing feelings of safety, certainty and familiarity, and for endowing social order. Thus the concept can be considered a sort of a garbage can where all the concepts which are not understood, not defined and not explained by a mass of people are dumped so as to create a feeling of security of giving meaning to everything and labeling something as deviant when unable to define. Thus it creates a kind of a majority imposed phenomena in the society to which everyone is expected to mould and adapt into. And since we are born and brought up in this mould, it becomes imbedded in us, and becomes easy for us to call someone MAD if he is riding a non existent motorcycle in air in public.

The terms normality and abnormality create a reality in terms of black and white without any shades of grey, all of us however are always endowed with some form of abnormality, and extend on a continuum with this respect. When something is defined as normal, the behavior completely contrasting to it becomes abnormal and thus the two cannot exist without each other, it is actually our choice, which side of the coin to accept as reality. The two words are themselves endowed with heavy positive and negative connotations and hence need to be used with care because it does have an impact on others. Thus these terms are a way to provide only a glimpse of a human experience and hence should be treated with concern.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

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The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

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She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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