Let’s Talk Mental Health: The History of Abnormal Psychology

Society is quick to normalize and ostracize behaviors, looks, styles, and everything else that we do. We subconsciously judge one another all the time. That poses the question: What exactly is normal?

The history of the studies of abnormal psychology shows the uncertainty and lack of education around the mental health field. We’ve been trying to understand one another’s behaviors and emotions for long enough to come up with some crazy ideas and theories. From witches and the devil to head trauma and shock therapy, let’s get into the grits of ancient scientific thought.

This post is a Demonstration of Learning Project for one of my high-level psychology courses I’m currently taking. (Can we get a woot woot for fun and flexibility?!!)

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What Are The Fundamentals of Abnormal Psychology?

Abnormal psychology has been investigated by many scientists for centuries, yet it is constantly evolving and expanding as more research is explored. Abnormal behavior is considered to go against cultural and societal expectations of normalcy. However, abnormal behaviors do not always indicate psychological disorders.

As Reid J. Daitzman argues in Psychology Today‘s recent article, “Being Labeled ‘Abnormal’ Is Ignorant, Wrong, and Unfair,” you can’t prove normality (Daitzman, 2021). Some people try to prove abnormality to excuse behaviors, which ultimately leads to misdiagnosis (Daitzman, 2021). There lies the problem within abnormal psychology.

Have I lost you yet? As defined by David H. Barlow (2021) in Abnormal Psychology: An Integrative Approach, here are 5 key terms before we get into the history of psychological theories.

  • Abnormal behavior: “A psychological dysfunction within an individual that is associated with distress or impairment in functioning and a response that is not typical or culturally expected.”
  • Etiology: “Cause or source of a disorder.”
  • Prognosis: “Predicted future development of a disorder over time.”
  • Psychosocial treatment: “Treatment practices that focus on social and cultural factors (such as family experience), as well as psychological influences. These approaches include cognitive, behavioral, and interpersonal methods.”
  • Moral therapy: “Psychosocial approach in the 19th century that involved treating patients as normally as possible in natural environments.”
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A Walk Through History: Understanding Abnormal Behavior

Many theories have attempted to make sense of why we act as we do through the individual study of one another. Many philosophers believe the mind to be separate from the soul, or the psyche.

Since ancient Greek times, humans have studied the causes of abnormal behavior through various studies. Three traditional models still exist today: the supernatural, biological and psychological models.

The Supernatural

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In ancient times, all abnormal behavior was considered to be the work of the devil. Religious rituals such as exorcism were even attempted to rid evil spirits. This idea continued into the Middle Ages and through the end of the 1600s, when many women in Massachusetts were believed to be witches (Barlow, 2021). Countless women portraying “abnormal behavior” fell victim to the investigations and executions during the Salem Witch Trials.

Plus, an even more interesting tidbit? A Swiss physician named Paracelus believed that the moon’s gravitational pull could cause mental disorders (Barlow, 2021). But how crazy really is that, if you think about all the people who religiously follow astrology? Following the sky’s patterns has been a consistent theme in psychology for centuries.

The Biological

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Early on, psychological disorders were also believed to be entirely biological. The Greek philosopher Hippocrates, or the “Father of Modern Western Medicine,” affirmed that psychological conditions could be treated just like any other illness (Barlow, 2021, p. 13). Imagine going to the doctor and having them tell you that the depressive episode you’ve recently faced was due to physical head trauma. That’s not very reassuring.

Humoral therapy was explored during this period, from approximately 129 to 198 AD (Barlow, 2021). Many scientists believed that psychological disorders were due to a chemical imbalance in the brain. Called the “humoral theory of disorders,” this was brought to light by Hippocrates and Gallen (Barlow, 2021, p. 13).

Biological thought continued for hundreds of years. Such treatments even included electric shock. Shock therapy was thoroughly explored between the 1700 and 1900s. A Dutch physician, a colleague of Benjamin Franklin, gave himself an electric shock to the head, which produced a short period of happiness that could potentially, “be a useful treatment for depression” (Barlow, 2021, p. 15). Many of these shock treatments were ceased due to the belief that mental illness was incurable.

The Psychological

This idea resonates with me the most, because it acknowledges a variety of factors that influence psychological functioning.

Psychological theories take into account the other aspects of a person’s life, such as their environment, society and culture. Psychological disorders are not due to one thing, such as head trauma or genes, as previously believed.

This led to the construction of moral therapy. In these cases, institutionalized patients were treated, “as normally as possible in a setting that encouraged and reinforced normal social interaction,” with individual care (Barlow, 2021, p. 16). This treatment declined as it only thrived in smaller settings to allow for individual attention.

Modern Day Views on Abnormal Behavior

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Abnormal psychology still takes disciplines like biology into account, but it has expanded greatly from what early Greek philosophers believed. Concerning anxiety, research has shown that the tendency to panic can often be genetic. As Barlow explains, collections of genes can, “make us vulnerable [to such disorders] when the right psychological and societal factors are in place” (Barlow, 2021, p. 130).

As a society, we are still making many misattributions and misdiagnoses. As Daitzman (2021) argues, we make base judgements in our everyday lives. For example, take a patient coming into an office during flu season: Their symptoms may likely be attributed to the flu, even though this may not be the case (Daitzman, 2021). If the patient were experiencing these same symptoms at another time, the flu diagnosis would not have even crossed the doctor’s mind. Taking this to a higher level concerning mental health can be damaging when misdiagnosis occurs.

Open up the Conversation

The conversation on mental health has certainly opened up in recent years. As COVID-19 lockdowns spread across the world, we learned the importance of communication, love, acceptance and companionship. With an increase in education and scientific research, we now have a better grasp on what makes our brains tick, what makes behavior “normal” and “abnormal,” and why we do things as we do.

It’s no shock to us how taboo this conversation has been for years. Looking back to the Salem Witch Trials and shock therapy for psychological patients is appalling. As we come to accept that many of us go through mental struggles in our day-to-day lives, the more society normalizes mental health care.

It’s just as important for your mind to feel healthy as the other parts of your body.

As many Western philosophers have argued, the mind and body are connected. Have you ever noticed a sudden wave of full-body achiness after hearing bad news? Signals are sent back and forth between the mind and body constantly. I see connections between my mind and body on the daily.

Start to treat your mental health days like physical health days. That’s when you’ll see the difference.

In the meantime, embrace the acceptance of “abnormal.”

Yours Truly,

Cat Taylor

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Note: I am not a licensed psychologist, nor a doctor. I am working towards a Bachelor’s degree in both Psychology and English. The information in this post reference studies from the following sources.

Works Cited:

Barlow, D. H., Durand, V. M., Lalumiere, M. L., & Hofmann, S. G. (2021). Abnormal psychology: An integrative approach. Nelson Education Ltd. 

Daitzman, R. J. (2021, September 15). Being labeled “abnormal” is ignorant, wrong, and unfair. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/magical-enlightenment/202109/being-labeled-abnormal-is-ignorant-wrong-and-unfair. 

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