A psychological disorder is a condition characterized by abnormal thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Psychopathology is the study of psychological disorders, including their symptoms, etiology (i.e., their causes), and treatment. The term psychopathology can also refer to the manifestation of a psychological disorder. Although consensus can be difficult, it is extremely important for mental health professionals to agree on what kinds of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are truly abnormal in the sense that they genuinely indicate the presence of psychopathology.
Certain patterns of behavior and inner experience can easily be labeled as abnormal and clearly signify some kind of psychological disturbance. The person who washes his hands 40 times per day and the person who claims to hear the voices of demons exhibit behaviors and inner experiences that most would regard as abnormal. Abnormal refers to beliefs and behaviors that suggest the existence of a psychological disorder.
On the other hand, consider the nervousness a young man feels when talking to attractive women or the loneliness and longing for home a freshman experiences during her first semester of college—these feelings may not be regularly present, but they fall in the range of normal. So, what kinds of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors represent a true psychological disorder? Psychologists work to distinguish psychological disorders from inner experiences and behaviors that are merely situational, idiosyncratic, or unconventional.
Throughout history there have been three general theories of the etiology (causes) of mental illness: supernatural, somatogenic, and psychogenic.
- Supernatural theories attribute mental illness to possession by evil or demonic spirits, displeasure of gods, eclipses, planetary gravitation, curses, and sin.
- Somatogenic theories identify disturbances in physical functioning resulting from either illness, genetic inheritance, or brain damage or imbalance.
- Psychogenic theories focus on traumatic or stressful experiences, maladaptive learned associations and cognitions, or distorted perceptions.
Etiological theories of mental illness determine the care and treatment mentally ill individuals receive. Modern treatments of mental illness are mostly associated with the establishment of hospitals and asylums, beginning in the sixteenth century, to house and confine the poor, homeless, unemployed, criminals and those with mental illness. While inhumane by today’s standards, the view of insanity at the time likened individuals with mental illness to animals (i.e., animalism) who did not have the capacity to reason, could not control themselves, were capable of violence without provocation, did not have the same physical sensitivity to pain or temperature, and could live in miserable conditions without complaint.
Etiological theories coexist today in what the psychological discipline holds as the biopsychosocial model of explaining human behavior. While individuals may be born with a genetic predisposition for a certain disorder, certain psychological stressors need to be present for the development of the disorder. Sociocultural factors such as sociopolitical or economic unrest, poor living conditions, trauma or problematic interpersonal relationships are also viewed as contributing factors. As much as we want to believe that in present day we are above the historical treatments now considered inhumane, or that the present is always the most enlightened time, we should not forget that our thinking today continues to reflect the same underlying somatogenic and psychogenic theories of mental illness discussed throughout this superficial and brief history of mental illness.
Progress in the treatment of mental illness necessarily implies improvements in the diagnosis of mental illness. A standardized diagnostic classification system with agreed-upon definitions of psychological disorders creates a shared language among mental health providers and aids in clinical research. While disorders have been recognized as far back as the ancient Greeks, it was not until 1883 that German psychiatrist Emil Kräpelin (1856–1926) published a comprehensive system of psychological disorders that centered on a pattern of symptoms (i.e., syndrome) suggestive of an underlying physiological cause. Other clinicians also suggested classification systems that became popular but the need for a single, shared system paved the way for the American Psychiatric Association’s 1952 publication of the first Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM). The most recent version is the DSM-5 (2013). Each revision reflects an attempt to help clinicians streamline diagnosis and work better with other diagnostic systems such as health diagnoses outlined by the World Health Organization (WHO).
References to mental illness can be found throughout history. The evolution of mental illness, however, has not been linear or progressive but rather cyclical. Whether a behavior is considered normal or abnormal depends on the context surrounding the behavior and thus changes as a function of a particular time and culture. In the past, uncommon behavior or behavior that deviated from the sociocultural norms and expectations of a specific culture and period has been used as a way to silence or control certain individuals or groups.
As a result, a less cultural relativist view of abnormal behavior has focused on whether behavior poses a threat to oneself or others or causes so much distress that it interferes with one’s responsibilities or relationships with family and friends.
- 10.1: What is Mental Illness? by L. D. Worthy, Trisha Lavigne, & Fernando Romero is licensed CC BY-NC-SA 4.0. Original source: https://open.maricopa.edu/culturepsychology.
- 10.4: History of Mental Illness by L. D. Worthy, Trisha Lavigne, & Fernando Romero is licensed CC BY-NC-SA 4.0. Original source: https://open.maricopa.edu/culturepsychology.