What Is Pathologizing?

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What Is Pathologizing?

Pathologizing happens when people treat others differently or mentally categorize someone as abnormal.

Pathologization can be in reference to medical or psychological symptoms. It can also be in reference to someone's physical appearance or social standing. It often happens as a result of stigma or stereotypes, because people tend to lump individuals in with their preconceived notions.

Allan Horwitz, PhD, a distinguished professor of sociology at Rutgers, explained a bit about what it means to pathologize someone, as well as the impacts it can have on individuals and society as a whole.

Allan Horwitz, PhD

The key features of pathologization are to treat a person or phenomenon as abnormal and/or unhealthy.

— Allan Horwitz, PhD

Pathologizing, or considering someone abnormal, comes from pathology, i.e., the scientific field that works to discover the causes and effects of different diseases. While it makes sense in a lab setting—scientists work to analyze diseases based on preexisting information—it can be harmful and insulting in social contexts.

Who Is Most Likely To Pathologize Someone Else?

Pathologizing happens when a person makes an assumption about a larger group based on an idea or preconceived notion that they already have.

"Social distance is probably the best predictor of the tendency to pathologize someone or something," says Horwitz. "So, people of different ethnicities, social classes, nationalities, etc. are most prone to pathologize those who don't share their own characteristics."

Pathologization often comes as a result of a lack of education about groups that are considered "other." For children, if they have heard ideas expressed, they may be pathologizing certain groups without realizing it because of what they have picked up from the people in their immediate surroundings.

Who Is Most Likely to Be Pathologized?

Behaviors and mental illness are two common things that people pathologize.

  • In the case of behaviors, it's been studied in classrooms by looking at the stigmas surrounding both gifted kids and kids with learning disabilities. It can be hard for kids with learning disabilities to socially overcome the pathologizing of needing special education courses.
  • In the case of mental illness, one symptom can often be lumped in with a larger diagnosis. Unfortunately, this also often results in the reliance on medications, which even professionals in the medical community have been guilty of in recent years.

This reliance on medication has been noted by mental health professionals, with one even cautioning other therapists about the act of seeing behaviors that confirm certain diagnoses and ignoring the ones that don't. Unfortunately, this could also contribute to the rise of the diagnosis of ADD and ADHD in kids.

It also frequently happens in schools with students from low-income families. These damaging stereotypes can be hurtful to kids' mental health and their determination to succeed. Some researchers have even started to work with teachers in these schools to identify common stereotypes and mythologies to work to combat them.

What Are the Effects Of Pathologizing Someone?

Pathologization can impact people of all ages, and its effects can last for years and even limit opportunities for growth in some cases.

For kids, being diagnosed with a learning disability could lead to the larger social implication of alienating them from their friends in their normal classes. This could lead to them feeling self-conscious or doubting their abilities for years to come.

For those with mental illnesses, the effects of pathologizing can lead to shame. It can also cause people anxiety when it comes to expressing their thoughts and feelings or sharing their backgrounds.

What Is De-Pathologizing?

Horwitz notes that de-pathologizing is, to him, perhaps one of the most interesting current behaviors.

"The most recent instance is Simone Biles who is praised for her courage in deciding to withdraw from gymnastics competition in the Olympics because of mental health concerns," says Horwitz. "Similarly, the term 'trauma' is now widely used to refer to expectable mental health effects of the COVID pandemic."

This is largely positive because it means that these formerly stigmatized topics are becoming more widely accepted and understood.

"People who are seen as having undergone some traumatic experience are rarely pathologized but instead seen as victims," says Horwitz. "Likewise, anxiety and depression have largely lost their stigmatizing connotations and are now seen as normal, if unpleasant, experiences."

Pathologization In Relationships

Pathologizing can happen in relationships and is a type of emotional abuse.

If you continually notice that your partner is taking things they don't like into diagnosis based on stigma alone, this could be a problem. For example, if they evade basic questions by calling you paranoid or neurotic or if they blame your insistence on certain levels of cleanliness on obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

Notice when things like this happen and make sure to either address it with your partner or with a therapist if you're not sure of how to bring this up.

How to Avoid Pathologizing Someone

Below are some measures you can take to avoid pathologizing someone:

  • Educating yourself on mental health or other stigmatized issues, you can better understand people as individuals and you can even be aware of the harmful pathologizing that certain communities consistently experience.
  • Get to know people individually before judging them based on any number of factors in their background.
  • Don't be dismissive of statements that could be harmful to large groups of people.

A Word From Verywell

If you have been pathologized, it's important to recognize that it's not a reflection of you personally, but rather a reflection of others' biases. In the case of Simone Biles, speaking truthfully about her mental health concerns as a public figure with a large platform could help destigmatize the topic for others.

If you find that you have been guilty of pathologizing a group, work to educate yourself on them so that you can avoid such thinking in the future.

2 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Walker, M.T. (2006). The Social Construction of Mental Illness and its Implications for the Recovery Model. International Journal of Psychosocial Rehabilitation. 10 (1), 71-87

  2. Ullucci K, Howard T. Pathologizing the Poor: Implications for Preparing Teachers to Work in High-Poverty Schools. 2014;50(2).

By Brittany Loggins
Brittany is a health and lifestyle writer and former staffer at TODAY on NBC and CBS News. She's also contributed to dozens of magazines.