Historical Perspectives of Abnormal PsychologyAt times, it is adequate to classify certain terms by nothing more than their logical antecedents, such as defining darkness as the absence of light. Yet, the more ambiguous or culturally predicated terms—such as abnormal—require an explanation that entails concise, observable terminology rather than simply elucidating the state of opposing deficiency (i.e. normal). To that end, the scientific characterization of abnormality rests upon five criteria: 1) help seeking; 2) irrationality/dangerousness; 3) deviance; 4) emotional distress and; 5) significant impairment (Damour & Hansell, 2008). The first three criteria are best used as indicators or correlates than directly linked markers of abnormality, given their circumstantial nature. The last two are more useful and functional from a scientific standpoint, thereby making them the preferred, present-day diagnostic tools of psychopathology. For, even though emotional distress and significant impairment can occur outside the realm of psychopathology, psychopathology rarely occurs without emotional distress or significant impairment. These criteria act collectively as a working definition that is generally useful from a clinical standpoint but not universally applicable in every situation. Notwithstanding, a full comprehension of the breadth and scope of modern-day abnormal psychology must take into account the origins of psychopathology and the development of abnormal psychology into a scientific discipline, in light of the psychosocial, biological/medical, and sociocultural theoretical models of psychology.
Origins of Abnormal PsychologyEven though the field of abnormal psychology, as a scientific discipline, has existed for a little more than 100 years, the explanations used to account for abnormal behavior go back beyond Biblical history (Damour & Hansell, 2008). The earliest rationalization for mental illness was the animistic/spiritual approach, which was built upon the belief that the metaphysical, spirit world can affect the corporeal, observable world. The real-world exhibition of this belief system on the subject of psychopathology entailed the use of trepidation or the practice of boring holes in a live person’s skull to let out the contributory evil spirit. This “medical procedure” was found to take place as early as 3000 B.C. in Peru and Bolivia as well as in the pre-Hispanic Aztec and Incan civilizations (Shieff, Smith & Wadley, 1997). It was Hippocrates in 460 B.C. who first proposed a purely biological explanation of abnormal behavior. He argued that an imbalance in four fluids—blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile, which he called humors—accounted for mental illness. Even though this reasoning was obviously flawed it was still a scientific evolution to explicate abnormal behavior through purely physical forces. It is from these primitive foundations that the scientific discipline of psychopathology was first built and it is these ideas that began the journey toward understanding abnormal behavior.
The Development of Abnormal Psychology into a Scientific DisciplineThe ancient Greeks were the first to diagnose and prescribe a course of treatment for hysteria, now called conversion disorder. The symptoms of hysteria include paralysis, confusion, various pains and ailments, and loss of sensation. These symptoms usually follow neurological damage, but in the case of hysteria no neurological damage could be found to account for the physical symptoms. Since hysteria was observed in mostly females and the affected parts of the body changed over time, the Greek physicians hypothesized that the uterus moved around the body, thereby causing the blockage of fluids. It was not until 1896 in Vienna that Sigmund Freud first proposed a systematic theory of psychodynamics that could account for the psychological components of hysteria (Damour & Hansell, 2008; History of psychology, 2010). Founded mostly on case studies, Freud put forth the idea that conflicts between conscious and subconscious processes explained the odd physical symptoms usually associated with hysteria. Even though many of the assertions made by the psychodynamic perspective have been shown to lack scientifically objective evidence, Freud still offered the field of abnormal psychology its first comprehensive theory of psychopathology.
Then in 1879 the first psychological laboratory was set up by Wilhelm Wundt in Leipzip Germany, which set the stage for the scientific elucidation of the causes of psychological dysfunction. What is more, in 1892 the American Psychological Associate (APA) was put together by G. Stanley Hall, which in 1952 released the first diagnostic manual for mental disorders (DSM-I) (Anthony & Goldstein, 1988). The DSM specifically catalogues the different diagnostic categories of mental disorders and helps clinicians and researchers set criteria for the diagnosis of mental illness. In 1892 the first psychology clinic opened its doors to patients at the University of Pennsylvania, at the hand of Lightner Witmer. With the first comprehensive theory of psychopathology in place, the first psychological laboratory and clinic opened, the APA set up as well as the first diagnostic manually published, the field of abnormal psychology graduated from the obscure reaches of spirituality into the more concrete concerns of scientific discovery.
Models of PsychologyPsychosocial Model
Erik Erikson was the first psychologist to advocate a theory of psychosocial development to account for psychological dysfunction (Studer, 2006). Erikson posited that eight tasks constitute the pivotal points that either establish healthy development or dysfunctional development: trust, independence, enterprise, industry, individuality, intimacy, productivity, and integrity. Since Erikson believed that these stages are epigenetic, the completion of each stage must take place before a person can progress to the next stage. It is at this point that abnormal psychology becomes an issue. If any one of the stages is not resolved adequately or the least advantageous option is chosen, then the other stages cannot be addressed and mental illness can result. Also, the 4th axis of the current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual is devoted to the psychosocial and environmental problems that contribute to mental illness. The areas of concern are troubles with the primary support group, social environment, schooling, work, lodging, financial, health care services, legal system, and environmental. In sum, the psychosocial model of psychology applies to abnormal psychology through the 4th axis of the DSM-IV and Erickson’s proposed path of psychosocial development.
Biological/Medical ModelThe biological/medical model is concerned with the bio-chemical functioning of the brain and the physiological happenings of the body, as they relates to psychology. This can include physical injury, disease, neurochemical disturbances, hormone imbalances, and genetic abnormalities. The biological/medical model deals exclusively with the physical components of human psychology and therefore attempts to explain abnormal psychology in purely material terms. However, even though this model is solely concerned with the corporeal world, social considerations can have implications on purely biological mechanisms. For instance, Masterpasqua (2009) found that mood and anxiety disorders correlate highly with certain DNA patterns and reactivity of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis which are both sensitive to the influence of the social role that a caregiver exerts on an infant. In all, the biological/medical model offers a limited explanation of abnormal behavior, since social factors have a large impact on physical goings-on.
Sociocultural ModelThe sociocultural model explains that social and cultural context define the terms by which abnormal behavior is understood and the model also, “…focuses on the influence of large social and cultural forces on individual functioning” (Damourv& Hansell, 2008, p. 63). For example, some sociocultural psychologists have emphasized the role that poverty, discrimination, and unemployment play in the efficacy of criminal behavior. Still other psychologists go so far as to claim that the idea of mental disorder is entirely build upon and invented by forces of societal conformity. Moreover, the sociocultural model asserts that learning is largely built upon the groundwork of social and cultural pressures, stresses, and ideals. Case in point, the appraisal of the perceived burden of care giving to elderly parents has been shown to be highly correlated to socio-economic background, race, and ethnic upbringing (Aziz, Bellack & Rosenfarb, 2006). White participants found relatives with partially self-induced symptoms, such as high blood-pressure due to eating habits, as most burdensome and African American participants found relatives who suffer from substance abuse as most burdensome. Overall, the sociocultural model adds context and causality to the discussion of abnormal psychology.
ConclusionIn conclusion, field of abnormal psychology is built upon the foundation laid by the spiritual explanations of millennia past and the misguided biological reasoning of the Greek physician Hippocrates. In the year 1896, the Viennese physician Sigmund Freud—fascinated with the age-old paradox of hysteria—put forth a comprehensive explanation of psychopathology, which proposed the conflict between conscious and unconscious forces as the cause for mental illness. Along with the first psychological laboratory and clinic as well as the establishment of the APA and the publication of the first DSM, Freud’s psychodynamic theory helped mold the field of abnormal psychology into a scientific discipline. In addition, the psychosocial model explains that mental illness is the irresolution of one of the stages of development, as presented by Erikson. The biological/medical model covers the physical happenings that relate to and cause psychopathology. Finally, the sociocultural model explicates the cultural context and social forces that influence abnormal behavior.
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