What is a mental disorder? This answer is more complicated than you might expect. Unlike physical illnesses that can be diagnosed on the basis of “objective” physical norms for the body, there are no reliable “biomarkers” for mental disorders. Instead, they are diagnosed on the basis of social norms for thoughts, feelings, and behavior. During the COVID-19 pandemic, these norms have radically changed. Should we think about the new manifestations of compulsive hand washing, generalized anxiety, or depressed mood as mental illnesses? In this lecture, I will review the implications of mental health symptoms during the pandemic for theories of mental illness, including new theories that provide an alternative to existing models.


Tom Armstrong
Assistant Professor of Psychology

Professor Armstrong is a clinical psychologist who teaches courses on mental illness and emotion. His research focuses on the role of disgust in anxiety-related disorders.

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COVID-19: A Liberal Arts Approach to the Study of a Global Pandemic was created in the spring of 2020 as a special one-credit course for Whitman College’s most newly admitted students, offering them an opportunity to get to know our distinguished faculty and to study a significant event in human history.