Psychological Disorders defined.

Many definitions have been used to define psychological disorders. However, most of the definitions have 4 common features i.e. deviance, distress, dysfunction and danger. In other words, psychological disorders are deviant (different, bizarre, unusual and extreme), distressing (unpleasant and upsetting to the individual and also to others), dysfunctional (interfering with the individual’s capability to carry out life activities in a proper manner) and possibly dangerous (to the person and to others). 

Approaches to defining Abnormal Behavior

  • Norms are simply stated or unstated rules for proper conduct and behavior. Behaviors, thoughts and emotions which break societal norms are termed as abnormal. The first approach considers, abnormal behavior as a deviation from societal norms.
  • According to the second approach, abnormal behavior is maladaptive. Psychologists often believe that the best criterion for determining the normality of behavior is whether it results in the well-being of the individual and ultimately of the group to which he/she belongs. Well-being simply does not mean only maintenance and survival but it also includes growth, fulfillment and actualisation of potential.
  • A most common stereotype is that psychological disorder is something to be ashamed of. The stigma or the wrong labeling attached to mental illnesses discourages people to consult a doctor or psychologist regarding their problems. This leads to an increment in the problems which may aggravate into bigger issues in the future.

Historical Background

The following is a brief historical account of how psychological disorders are viewed over the ages.

  • Ancient theory
  1. According to this theory abnormal behavior is explained in terms of operations of supernatural forces like evil spirits and the devil.
  2.  Exorcism or the process of removing the evil spirit residing in the individual with the help of counter-magic and prayers is the most popular cure for mental illness. 
  • Biological or Organic approach
  1.  This theory believes that, individuals behave in an unusual manner because their bodies and their brains are not operating properly.
  2.  However, there is proof that, brain and body processes are connected to many types of maladaptive behavior.
  3.  For specific disorders, if these defective biological processes are corrected then normal functioning can be enhanced.
  • Psychological approach
  1. This theory states that, psychological problems are caused by the insufficiency in the manner a person thinks, feels and perceives the world.
  • Organismic approach
  1. This theory was developed by the famous philosopher-physicians of ancient Greece such as Hippocrates, Socrates and Plato. They believed that abnormal behavior arose out of conflicts between emotions and reason.
  2.  Galen explained the role of the 4 humors in personal character and personality. He said that the material world is made up of 4 elements i.e. earth, air, water and fire. These 4 elements combined to create 4 essential body fluids i.e. blood, black bile, yellow bile and phlegm.
  3.  Each one of these 4 fluids is responsible for an individual’s different temperaments. Any imbalance between these fluids results in psychological disorders.
  • Middle Ages
  1. During this age, demonology and superstitions gained renewed significance for explaining abnormal behavior.
  2.  According to Demonology, people with psychological problems are evil and there are several instances of ‘witch-hunts’ during this period.
  3.  The Christian spirit of charity prevailed in the early Middle Ages and St. Augustine wrote about mental anguish, feelings and conflicts in an extensive manner. 
  4. This in turn laid down the base for modern psychodynamic theories for abnormal behavior.
  • Renaissance Period
  1. This period was marked by an accentuation in humanism and curiosity about behavior and its characteristics.
  2.  According to Johann Weyer, psychological conflict and disturbed interpersonal relationships are the main causes of psychological disorders.
  • Age of Reason and Enlightenment
  1. This period particularly points to the 17th and 18th centuries
  2. . Faith and dogma were replaced by scientific methods of understanding abnormal behavior in this period.
  3.  This in turn contributed to the Reform Movement in the 18th century and it also led to an increase in compassion for people who were the sufferers of these disorders. Reforms of asylums in Europe and America were carried out.
  4.  Another new aspect of the movement was Deinstitutionalisation i.e. the transfer of former mental patients from the institutions back into the community.
  • Interactional or Bio-Psycho-Social approach
  1. According to this theory, the biological factors, the psychological factors and the social factors play a very pivotal role in enhancing the expression and outcome of psychological disorders.
 It is evident from this account that, whenever the history of abnormal psychology has been studied certain theories have occurred over and over again. Psychological disorders and its study has intrigued people for more than 2500 years. Abnormal Psychology focuses on maladaptive behavior-its causes, consequences and treatment.