A Critique of Individual Pathology

Written by Steve Rose

Steve Rose, PhD, is an addiction counsellor and former academic researcher, committed to conveying complex topics in simple language.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, more commonly known as the DSM, has been the gold standard for the classification and diagnosis of mental disorders for over half a century. Published by the American Psychiatric Association, the DSM is widely adopted by mental health professionals globally as a guide for diagnosing and treating mental illnesses. Its categories of mental disorders and their criteria are used in a myriad of ways, from guiding therapy to informing insurance coverage.

However, despite its significance and widespread acceptance, the DSM has been subject to critique. In this article I will provide a critique based on the humanistic perspective of Carl Rogers. As one of the most influential psychologists of the 20th century, Rogers’ viewpoint emphasized the inherent worth and self-determination of individuals. His perspective challenges the dominant medical model underpinning the DSM, which leans heavily towards categorizing and pathologizing individuals’ behavior and experiences. This critique is especially relevant in today’s world, where mental health issues are on the rise, demanding a more inclusive, empathetic, and individualized approach to mental health care.

In light of this critique, I propose the concept of “contextual pathology” as a potential alternative. Contextual pathology shifts the focus from an individual-centric perspective to an interactional perspective, taking into account the interplay between an individual and their environment. It challenges the established notions of pathology, suggesting that weaknesses or traits considered pathological in one context may actually be adaptive or strengths in another.

This approach offers a novel lens through which we can reexamine and redefine our understanding of mental health. In the following sections, I will delve deeper into these ideas, illuminating the shortcomings of the DSM, the humanistic critique, and the transformative potential of contextual pathology.

The DSM and Its Limitations

The DSM, now in its fifth edition, traces its roots back to the early 20th century when mental health professionals sought a common language and standard criteria for classifying mental disorders. Over the years, it has undergone several revisions to reflect evolving understandings of mental illnesses. The main purpose of the DSM is to facilitate diagnostic accuracy and treatment consistency among professionals in the field. It provides a common language that allows practitioners to communicate effectively about their patients’ mental health.

Despite its widespread use and significance, the DSM has been subject to criticism, particularly for its emphasis on individual pathology. Critics argue that it encourages a reductionist view of mental health, distilling complex human experiences and behaviors into neat categories and labels. This perspective overlooks the complexity of human experiences and the influences of societal, cultural, and environmental factors. By focusing primarily on individual symptoms and disorders, the DSM inadvertently neglects the person behind the pathology and the unique context in which they exist.

Several studies have also pointed to the limitations of an individualized diagnostic approach. For example, the phenomenon of high comorbidity rates, where individuals are diagnosed with multiple disorders, raises questions about the validity of clear-cut categories in the DSM. Moreover, many have noted the DSM’s lack of attention to cultural variations in the expression of distress, with the risk of overdiagnosing or underdiagnosing certain groups. Furthermore, a narrow focus on pathology may lead to an over-reliance on pharmaceutical interventions, possibly at the expense of addressing other meaningful aspects of an individual’s life. These concerns collectively highlight the need for an approach to mental health that goes beyond mere categorization and embraces the complexity and diversity of human experiences.

Carl Rogers and the Humanistic Approach to Mental Health

Carl Rogers was a prominent figure in psychology, particularly known for his humanistic approach to psychotherapy. Rogers’ theories revolutionized the field by shifting the focus away from the therapist and diagnosis, towards the client’s experiences and perspectives. His ‘Client-Centered Therapy’ highlighted the value of empathy, genuineness, and unconditional positive regard, significantly influencing the practice of psychotherapy.

At the heart of Rogers’ humanistic approach is the belief in the inherent goodness and potential of individuals. He posited that people are essentially self-actualizing; they strive for growth, fulfillment, and the realization of their potential. This perspective also emphasized the importance of individual experiences and subjective perceptions, as opposed to diagnostic categories and norms. The humanistic approach acknowledges the complexities of human existence, placing significant value on personal experience, autonomy, and the innate striving towards self-improvement and personal growth.

Focus on the Intrinsic Worth and Potential of Individuals

Rogers’ humanistic approach starkly contrasts with the pathology-focused framework of the DSM. The DSM’s emphasis on identifying and classifying disorders may detract from the inherent worth and potential of the individual. Rogers, on the other hand, viewed individuals as more than a collection of symptoms, underscoring the importance of understanding and supporting the person’s subjective experiences and inherent potential.

Critique of the Pathology-Oriented Approach

The DSM’s pathology-oriented approach also contrasts with Rogers’ positive view of human nature. By focusing on diagnosing and treating disorders, the DSM potentially overlooks the individuals’ strengths and capacities for growth. Rogers’ perspective encourages therapists to see beyond the diagnosis to the person behind it, understanding their experiences, and supporting their self-actualizing journey.

Emphasis on the Subjectivity and Complexity of Human Experiences

Finally, Rogers’ emphasis on the subjectivity and complexity of human experiences contrasts with the DSM’s objective, categorization-based approach. While the DSM attempts to distill complex human experiences into defined categories, Rogers acknowledged the richness and diversity of these experiences. His approach encourages a more nuanced understanding of mental health, viewing it as a complex interplay of personal experiences and interpretations, rather than a list of symptoms to be ticked off a checklist.

Proposing the Concept of Contextual Pathology

In order to highlight the crucial interplay between the individual and society to avoid an over-emphasis on individual pathology, I propose the concept of contextual pathology. This is a novel approach to understanding mental health that emphasizes the interaction between an individual and their environment. This is not merely shifting the locus of pathology to the social context (social pathology). Rather, it considers the specific fit between the individual and their social context.

I postulate that what may be considered a pathology within one context may not necessarily be so in another. Instead of viewing mental health issues solely as individual failings or dysfunctions, this approach considers how various contexts can influence an individual’s mental health.

The conventional approach, represented by the DSM, emphasizes individual pathology, focusing on diagnosing and treating mental disorders based on symptoms manifested by the individual. In contrast, contextual pathology does not concentrate solely on the individual’s symptoms but also takes into account the external factors impacting the individual’s mental health. These factors can include social relationships, cultural norms, economic conditions, and other environmental influences.

The benefit of a contextual approach is that it provides a more holistic view of mental health. By considering the broader context, it offers a deeper understanding of the conditions contributing to an individual’s mental health issues. It helps to uncover systemic and environmental issues that may contribute to mental distress, paving the way for more comprehensive and potentially more effective interventions. Additionally, it can help to destigmatize mental health issues by acknowledging the role of external stressors and societal pressures.

Consider an individual exhibiting traits of hyperactivity and impulsivity, traits typically associated with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). In a traditional classroom setting, these traits might be disruptive and viewed negatively. However, in a different context, such as in an energetic startup environment or creative pursuit, these traits could be seen as advantageous, fostering innovation and quick decision-making. The contextual pathology perspective encourages us to consider these situational factors before rushing to pathologize behaviors or traits.

The following examples highlight the concept of contextual pathology. Although the names and details of each example are fictionalized, they highlight real and common problems.

A Tale of Contextual Pathology: The Story of Sofia

Sofia, a vivacious and creative young woman, always found herself at odds with traditional academic structures. From an early age, she displayed a deep sense of empathy and emotional intelligence, often understanding and interpreting the world through her feelings rather than through the dry facts and figures that school emphasized. The educational system’s focus on objective knowledge, logic, and standardized testing felt stifling to Sofia, making her feel out of place and unsuccessful.

Frustrated by her inability to conform to these academic expectations, Sofia began to see herself as incapable or deficient. Her teachers labeled her as ‘disruptive’ because she often asked unconventional questions or made remarks that strayed from the curriculum’s strict content. Her report cards frequently mentioned her ‘difficulty focusing’, and she was referred to a school psychologist for potential attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

When Sofia turned sixteen, she took a part-time job at a local nursing home, assisting with activities and day-to-day care for the residents. The nursing home environment was markedly different from school. Here, Sofia’s empathy, emotional intelligence, and creativity were not only valued but crucial. She quickly formed meaningful relationships with the residents, understanding their needs and feelings, often without them having to say a word.

In this environment, Sofia’s ‘disruptive’ nature became a strength as she proposed and implemented innovative activities that significantly improved the residents’ quality of life. Her ‘difficulty focusing’ on dry academic materials turned into an ability to multi-task efficiently, keeping track of multiple residents’ needs and the dynamic demands of her role.

Sofia thrived in this context. What was once pathologized as a ‘weakness’ in the educational system became her greatest strength in the nursing home. She was not ‘disordered’; rather, the traditional school setting was not a suitable environment for her unique capabilities and perspective. This shift in context perfectly illustrates the concept of ‘contextual pathology’—when the problem is not inherent within the individual but arises from a misalignment between individual traits and societal roles or contexts.

Another Tale of Contextual Pathology: The Journey of Alex

Alex, a man in his mid-twenties, found himself adrift in a sea of uncertainty. Having graduated from a prestigious university with a degree in finance, he secured a lucrative job at a top consulting firm, fulfilling what he had been told was a path to success. Yet, despite his achievements, Alex felt a gnawing emptiness, a lack of purpose and fulfillment that he couldn’t quite articulate.

In his corporate job, Alex felt like a square peg in a round hole. His work environment valued analytical thinking, competitiveness, and long work hours. Despite his best efforts, Alex struggled to keep up with the demands of his job. He was often criticized for being ‘too sensitive’ or ‘too slow’, as he preferred to think deeply about the tasks at hand and was greatly affected by the high-pressure, cutthroat corporate environment.

He often questioned his capabilities and self-worth, and as his mental health declined, he was diagnosed with depression and anxiety. Society seemed to suggest that his struggles were a result of personal weaknesses or flaws – his inability to cope with the ‘real world’.

However, things took a turn when Alex’s friend introduced him to a local non-profit organization seeking volunteers for a community project. Deciding to take a break from his corporate job, Alex joined the non-profit and quickly discovered a context in which his perceived ‘weaknesses’ were actually strengths.

In the non-profit environment, Alex’s sensitivity was a valuable asset, allowing him to connect with the community members on a deeper level and understand their needs and concerns. His preference for deep thinking was appreciated as he brought thoughtful insights into the planning and execution of the projects. The slower pace and collaborative, meaningful work brought him a sense of purpose that had been missing in his corporate job.

In this new context, Alex was no longer ‘too sensitive’ or ‘too slow’ – he was empathetic and contemplative. His depression and anxiety started to ease, not because he had ‘fixed’ himself, but because he had found an environment that nurtured his natural traits instead of stifling them.

Alex’s story further illustrates the concept of ‘contextual pathology’. His mental health struggles were not inherent flaws but rather a reaction to a context that did not align with his natural abilities and needs. When he found a suitable environment, he was not only able to function but truly thrive, underscoring that the problem often lies not in the person, but in the context.

A Third Tale of Contextual Pathology: The Story of Anne

Anne, a sprightly and spirited woman in her seventies, found herself struggling to adjust to the constraints of her retirement home. Having led an active life as a school teacher, she cherished her independence and often found joy in small, spontaneous adventures like exploring new walking trails or trying out new recipes.

However, the retirement home she moved into had a rigid daily schedule and minimal activities that she found engaging. The staff often mistook her desire for independence and spontaneity as ‘rebelliousness’ or ‘difficulty adjusting’. Despite being physically healthy, Anne began to feel depressed and stifled, her vibrant spirit gradually dulled by the mundane routine and lack of autonomy.

Concerns about her mental health led to a series of assessments, and she was soon diagnosed with late-onset depression. The narrative quickly turned to her ‘inability to adjust to aging’ or ‘refusal to accept her new lifestyle’. Anne began to question herself, wondering if she was indeed flawed or ‘difficult’.

But a change came when her granddaughter introduced her to a community gardening project in her neighborhood. Eager to break free from the monotony of her retirement home, Anne joined the project. She found joy in the dirt under her nails, the nurturing of plants from seedlings to full bloom, and the satisfaction of creating something with her own hands.

The garden offered flexibility and the opportunity for spontaneous discovery that she craved. Her natural teaching abilities resurfaced as she guided young volunteers in the garden. The ‘rebelliousness’ that the retirement home staff frowned upon turned out to be her unique zest for life, now sparking joy and learning in the community garden.

In this context, Anne was no longer a ‘difficult’ elderly woman but a valuable mentor and vibrant community member. Her depression eased as she regained her sense of purpose and autonomy.

Anne’s journey highlights ‘contextual pathology’, demonstrating that her struggles were not personal failings but rather the result of an unsuitable environment. By finding a setting that embraced her spirit and strengths, she was able to reclaim her mental well-being and truly thrive. This reinforces the notion that we must consider the broader societal and environmental contexts when addressing mental health.

A Fourth Tale of Contextual Pathology: The Case of Lucas

Lucas, a man in his thirties, had always been deeply analytical. From a young age, he was fascinated by patterns, systems, and abstract concepts. He had a knack for dissecting complex ideas and problems, often losing himself in hours of thought and analysis. However, he struggled to express his thoughts verbally and found social interactions demanding and exhausting.

In his job as a sales manager, Lucas often felt out of place. His role demanded high levels of social interaction, quick decision-making, and a focus on interpersonal relationships. Lucas’ analytical mind and introverted nature were seen as drawbacks in this context. His difficulty with small talk and tendency to over-analyze were often mistaken for aloofness or indecisiveness.

Consequently, Lucas’ mental health started to deteriorate. He felt anxious, overwhelmed, and inadequate. The job he was supposed to be good at felt like a daily struggle. He was diagnosed with social anxiety disorder and recommended cognitive behavioral therapy to ‘improve’ his social skills.

Things began to change when Lucas joined a local chess club as a leisure activity. In this new environment, his analytical mind was not only welcomed but greatly valued. Chess offered Lucas the opportunity to apply his pattern recognition skills and strategic thinking without the pressure of social expectations that had plagued him in his job.

Furthermore, Lucas later found employment as a data analyst. In this role, his ability to discern patterns and analyze complex data was highly appreciated. His perceived ‘weaknesses’ in the sales job turned out to be his greatest strengths in a context that valued his analytical skills. He found his work fulfilling and was able to excel without the constant dread of social interactions. His ‘social anxiety disorder’ was significantly alleviated, not because he had become more sociable, but because he was no longer in an environment that stressed his weaknesses.

Lucas’ story is another example of ‘contextual pathology’. His struggles were not due to inherent flaws or a disorder, but rather a misfit between his individual traits and his job. When Lucas found an environment that appreciated his strengths, he was able to thrive, further illustrating the importance of considering context in understanding and addressing mental health.

The Shortcomings of Individualized Pathology

While individualized approaches to mental health, such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) or medication, play a critical role in managing mental health issues, they can inadvertently overlook the broader social and environmental context that significantly impacts an individual’s mental well-being. This section highlights how these approaches may neglect unhealthy social environments, challenging workplaces, economic realities, and the lack of fit between the individual and their role.

Unhealthy Social Environments

Unhealthy social environments, characterized by things like lack of social support, prejudice, discrimination, or toxic relationships, can profoundly affect an individual’s mental health. While CBT or medication can help manage symptoms and improve coping strategies, they may not fully address these external factors. Without addressing these toxic environments, the individual may continue to experience distress, and the impact of the therapy may be compromised.

Challenging Workplaces

Workplace stressors, such as high job demands, low job control, and lack of workplace support, can lead to anxiety, depression, and burnout. While individual-focused approaches can help employees manage their stress responses, they do not necessarily change the challenging work conditions. Efforts should also be made to promote healthier work environments that foster well-being and resilience.

Economic Realities

Economic factors, such as poverty, unemployment, and financial instability, are well-known to be associated with a wide range of mental health problems. However, individualized treatments like CBT or medication do not directly address these economic realities. While these treatments can help individuals cope better, they may not be enough to alleviate the psychological distress caused by economic hardship.

Lack of Fit Between the Individual and Their Role

The lack of fit between an individual and their societal role or expectations can lead to significant distress. For instance, a person with a highly creative personality might feel stifled and unhappy in a rigid, monotonous job. While individual-focused approaches can help the person cope with their feelings of dissatisfaction, they do not address the underlying issue: the mismatch between the person and their environment.

The recognition of these limitations does not diminish the value of individualized approaches, but rather underscores the need for a more holistic approach that acknowledges and addresses the broader societal and environmental context impacting mental health. It highlights the importance of integrating individual-focused treatments with efforts to improve social environments, workplaces, economic conditions, and the alignment between individuals and their roles.

Contextual Pathology and Its Challenge to the Current Economic System

Contextual pathology as a concept has implications that extend beyond the realm of mental health and into our broader economic structures. This perspective presents a challenge to the current economic system, which often prioritizes productivity, efficiency, and uniformity over individual well-being and the complex interaction between an individual and their environment.

The Pressure to Conform

Our current economic system often creates an environment that places high demands on individuals, requiring them to conform to specific roles, behaviors, and expectations. These expectations may not align with an individual’s unique abilities, interests, or values, potentially leading to stress, burnout, and mental health issues. The concept of contextual pathology argues that these symptoms are not just personal failings but may also be indicative of an unhealthy or unsuitable context.

Neglect of Environmental Factors

The current economic system can also neglect environmental factors that contribute to mental health issues. This can include poor working conditions, economic inequality, and lack of access to basic needs like healthcare, nutrition, and housing. By pathologizing individuals without acknowledging these contextual factors, the system can shift the blame onto individuals and overlook systemic issues that need to be addressed.

The Paradigm Shift

Adopting a contextual pathology perspective challenges the economic system to shift its paradigm. It encourages a move away from a one-size-fits-all approach to a more flexible system that acknowledges and accommodates the diversity of human experiences and capabilities. This shift could involve rethinking work environments, workloads, and expectations to promote mental health and well-being.

The Role of Policymakers and Stakeholders

For this shift to occur, policymakers, employers, educators, and other stakeholders would need to acknowledge the role of environmental factors in mental health and make the necessary changes. This could include implementing policies to improve working conditions, reduce income inequality, and ensure access to basic needs. It could also involve promoting mental health education and providing support services for individuals experiencing mental health issues.

Towards a More Inclusive Economic System

Ultimately, the concept of contextual pathology envisions a more inclusive economic system that values individual well-being and mental health as much as productivity and efficiency. This system would not only help individuals flourish but could also lead to healthier, happier societies and more sustainable economic growth.

Vision for a More Inclusive Approach to Mental Health

Our vision for a future mental health approach goes beyond individualized diagnostics and embraces a more holistic perspective. This approach would not solely rely on categorization of symptoms but would seek to understand individuals in their specific contexts, acknowledging the complexities of their lived experiences and the unique interactions between their traits and their environment. It would prioritize empathy, unconditional positive regard, and the belief in individuals’ potential for growth, reflecting Rogers’ humanistic principles.

The adoption of contextual pathology could significantly impact mental health practice and research. For mental health professionals, it could shift the focus of interventions from solely reducing symptoms to enhancing adaptability and resilience in various contexts. It could encourage professionals to consider environmental changes and societal interventions alongside individual treatments.

In research, it could shift the lens from searching for universal psychiatric truths to exploring the richness and diversity of human experiences across different contexts. It might also facilitate more interdisciplinary collaboration, with researchers from areas like sociology, anthropology, and environmental science contributing to a deeper understanding of mental health.

The integration of the humanistic approach and contextual pathology could transform mental health into a more individual-centered, compassionate, and context-sensitive field. This approach would value personal experiences and the pursuit of self-actualization, while also acknowledging the influence of context on mental health. It could lead to more personalized and effective therapeutic interventions that respect and respond to individuals’ unique experiences, environments, and pathways to growth.

Ultimately, this integration could foster a more nuanced, empathetic, and inclusive understanding of mental health, one that celebrates the complexity and diversity of human experiences, rather than reducing them to diagnostic labels.


The current framework for diagnosing and treating mental health disorders, represented by the DSM, has played a significant role in standardizing mental health practice and facilitating communication among professionals. However, this approach has limitations, especially when viewed from the perspective of Carl Rogers’ humanistic psychology and the emerging concept of contextual pathology.

An overemphasis on individual pathology often obscures the influence of environmental factors and reduces the complex, nuanced experiences of individuals to mere diagnostic labels. This reductionist view can inadvertently contribute to stigma and neglect the systemic and societal factors that can significantly impact an individual’s mental health.

Rogers’ humanistic approach, with its focus on the inherent potential of individuals and the subjectivity of human experiences, offers a valuable counterpoint to this pathology-oriented perspective. Meanwhile, the concept of contextual pathology brings attention to the influence of the environment and context on mental health, challenging us to consider how traits that are pathologized in one context may be strengths in another.

Adopting a mental health approach that integrates these perspectives can have profound implications not only for mental health practice and research but also for our broader societal and economic structures. It calls for a shift away from a one-size-fits-all approach towards a more inclusive, flexible system that values individual well-being and mental health as much as productivity and efficiency.

In closing, it’s important to remember that mental health is not merely the absence of mental disorders. It is a complex interplay of individual traits, experiences, and the context in which they exist. Embracing this complexity, rather than reducing it to labels, can pave the way for a more nuanced, empathetic, and inclusive approach to mental health.

Fascinated by ideas? Check out my podcast:

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Other Mental Health Resources

If you are struggling with other mental health issues or are looking for a specialist near you, use the Psychology Today therapist directory here to find a practitioner who specializes in your area of concern.

If you require a lower-cost option, you can check out BetterHelp.com. It is one of the most flexible forms of online counseling. Their main benefit is lower costs, high accessibility through their mobile app, and the ability to switch counselors quickly and easily, until you find the right fit.

*As an affiliate partner with Better Help, I receive a referral fee if you purchase products or services through the links provided.

As always, it is important to be critical when seeking help, since the quality of counselors are not consistent. If you are not feeling supported, it may be helpful to seek out another practitioner. I wrote an article on things to consider here.

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  1. stockdalewolfe

    Excellent posts. Can’t find “like” buttons.

  2. Becky Lorraine

    I agree with this perspective and wonder if school counselors might be helpful in guiding young generations better to know their strengths and weaknesses? Then help them select potential careers, activities that match their unique personalities. Instead of focusing on problem students, all students would benefit long term.


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