Pathologizing: Understanding the Practice and its Implications


Pathologizing refers to the practice of diagnosing or labeling behaviors, experiences, or conditions as pathological, meaning they are abnormal or deviant from the typical or ideal. Pathology, in this context, denotes the study of diseases, their manifestations, causes, and effects. Pathologizing is a common practice in healthcare, psychology, and psychiatry, where professionals seek to identify and treat mental, emotional, or behavioral issues. However, pathologizing can have broader social and political implications, especially when it affects marginalized groups. This article explores the concept of pathologizing, its applications, critique, and implications.

The Applications of Pathologizing

Pathologizing has many applications in healthcare, psychology, and psychiatry. It is used to identify and treat mental, emotional, or behavioral disorders that impact an individual’s daily functioning, well-being, or quality of life. Pathologizing helps professionals identify symptoms, patterns, and causes of disorders based on established diagnostic criteria, such as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) or the International Classification of Diseases (ICD).

Pathology is also used in medical diagnosis and treatment. Pathologists examine tissue and bodily fluid samples to detect abnormal growth, infection, inflammation, or cancer. Pathology is an essential tool for diagnosis and monitoring of diseases and their progression.

In psychology and psychiatry, pathologizing is used to diagnose and treat mental disorders, such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and personality disorders. Pathologizing involves identifying symptoms, assessing their severity, and matching them to an established diagnostic criteria. Once a diagnosis is made, treatment can be tailored to the individual’s needs, such as medication, psychotherapy, or a combination of both. Pathologizing aims to help individuals overcome their symptoms and improve their quality of life.

The Critique of Pathologizing

Pathologizing has been subject to critique from various perspectives. Some argue that pathologizing can lead to medicalization, meaning situations that were previously considered normal or non-pathological are now seen as illnesses or disorders that require treatment. Medicalization can lead to overdiagnosis, overtreatment, and medical harm, especially in cases where treatment is unnecessary or harmful.

Critics of pathologizing also argue that diagnostic criteria can be culturally and socially biased, leading to the pathologization of normal and adaptive behaviors or experiences. For example, the DSM-5’s inclusion of internet gaming disorder and caffeine withdrawal as mental disorders has been criticized as pathologizing normal human behaviors that do not necessarily require diagnosis or treatment.

Pathologizing has also been critiqued for its stigmatizing effects. Labels such as “mentally ill,” “psychotic,” or “personality-disordered” can perpetuate social stigmas and discrimination against individuals with mental health concerns. This stigma can lead to a reluctance to seek and receive treatment, detract from an individual’s sense of agency, and harm their self-esteem and social integration.

The Implications of Pathologizing

Pathologizing can have broader social and political implications beyond healthcare and psychology. The labeling and diagnosis of certain behaviors or experiences as pathological can have profound consequences for how society understands and treats individuals and groups. For example, the pathologizing of homosexuality as a mental illness until the 1970s perpetuated social stigmas and discrimination against the LGBT community. The depathologization of homosexuality in the DSM-III and its removal in the DSM-IV and DSM-5 reflects the growing recognition of the diverse and fluid nature of human sexuality, challenging binary and heteronormative assumptions.

The pathologizing of certain races or ethnicities, such as the diagnosis of drapetomania (the desire of slaves to escape) or dysaesthesia aethiopica (a supposed mental disorder affecting Black people) in the 19th century, reflects the use of pathology to justify racial discrimination and oppression. The pathologizing of certain political ideologies, religions, or beliefs as extremist or terrorist can lead to the securitization of everyday life, the curtailing of civil liberties, and the erosion of democratic values.

Pathologizing can also intersect with other forms of oppression and marginalization, such as ableism, sexism, heterosexism, and classism. For example, the pathologizing of certain body types or weight as disorders, such as anorexia or bulimia, reflects the medicalization and stigmatization of diverse and non-normative body experiences. Similarly, the pathologizing of certain behaviors or emotions as “hysteria” or “borderline” can perpetuate gendered assumptions about women’s emotional and mental health.


Pathologizing is a practice that seeks to identify and treat mental, emotional, or behavioral disorders. While pathologizing has many practical applications in healthcare and psychology, it has been subject to critique for its potential biases, medicalization, and stigmatization. Pathologizing has broader social and political implications, affecting how society understands and treats individuals and groups. Pathologizing can intersect with other forms of oppression and marginalization, highlighting the need for critical reflection and awareness.


What is pathologizing?

Pathologizing is the process of assigning a label to someone’s behavior or mental state according to diagnostic criteria. It often results in a medicalization of normal experiences and emotions, and can lead to stigmatization and over-treatment.

Why is pathologizing problematic?

Pathologizing can have a negative impact on people’s self-image and mental health, as it implies that there is something wrong with them. It also perpetuates the idea that there is a “normal” way of being, which can exclude certain groups of people from receiving appropriate care and support.

How can we avoid pathologizing?

We can avoid pathologizing by recognizing the diversity of human experiences and behaviors, and by reframing them in their social and cultural context. We can also prioritize the individual’s well-being over diagnostic labels, and work towards empowering people to make informed decisions about their own mental health.


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