What is Psychopathology?

Psychopathology is the scientific study of mental disorders, including efforts to understand their genetic, biological, psychological, and social causes; effective classification schemes (nosology); course across all stages of development; manifestations; and treatment.

Psychopathology is defined as the origin of mental disorders, how they develop, and the symptoms they might produce in a person.

The word psychopathology is derived from three roots:

(1) psyche (noun), from Ancient Greek ψυχή (psukhē, “soul, breath, mind, life-breath, spirit”).
(2) pathos (noun), from Ancient Greek πάθος, which is from πάσχω (paskhō, “I feel, suffer”), and in this context means a condition or state in which the individual experiences pain, suffering, death, misfortune, or misery.
(3) -ology (suffix), from Ancient Greek -λογία -logia, the study of (see pathology). Thus, psychopathology is the scientific study of a mental condition wherein the individual suffers significant pain and misery, even to the point that they feel as if their very “life-breath” (soul) is being damaged or sucked out of them.

Patients with mental disorders are customarily cared for by psychiatrists, doctors specialized in mental health who diagnose and treat patients through medication or psychotherapy. In such a way, psychiatric professionals treat persons with mental disorders through the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

History of Psychopathology

Early explanations for mental illnesses were greatly influenced by religious belief. What is presently identified as mental disorders was initially mistakenly attributed to possessions by evil spirits, demons,and the devil. This idea was widely accepted up until the Sixteenth and Seventeenth centuries. Individuals who suffered from these so called “possessions” were tortured as treatment. Doctors used this technique in hopes of bringing their patients back to sanity. Those who failed to return to sanity after torture were executed.

Hippocrates, one of the most notable Greek physicians of the fourth century BC, was one of the first to reject the idea that mental disorders were caused by possession of demons or the devil. He firmly believed the symptoms of mental disorders were due to diseases originating in the brain. Hippocrates suspected that these states of insanity were due to imbalances of fluids in the body. He identified these fluids to be four in particular: blood, black bile, yellow bile, and phlegm.

Famous philosopher Plato would come to argue the mind, body, and spirit worked as a unit. Any imbalance brought to these compositions of the individual could bring distress or lack of harmony within the individual. This philosophical idea would remain in perspective until the seventeenth century.

In the eighteenth century’s Romantic Movement, the idea that healthy parent-child relationships provided sanity became a prominent idea. Philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau introduced the notion that trauma in childhood could have negative implications later in adulthood.

In the nineteenth century, greatly influenced by Rousseau’s ideas and philosophy, famous philosopher George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel would bring about Psychotherapy. Talking therapy would originate from his ideas on the individual’s experiences and the natural human efforts to make sense of the world and life. Psychopathology would arise from his established school in Germany and his philosophy of life.

Study of Psychiatric Disorders

The scientific discipline of psychopathology was founded by Karl Jaspers in 1913, whose object of study was “mental phenomena”.

Many different professions may be involved in studying mental disorders or distress. Most notably, psychiatrists and clinical psychologists are particularly interested in this area and may either be involved in clinical treatment of mental illness, or research into the origin, development and manifestations of such states, or often, both.

More widely, psychopathology may be involved in many different specialties. For example, a neuroscientist may focus on brain changes related to mental illness. Therefore, someone who is referred to as a psychopathologist, may be one of any number of professions who have specialized in studying this area.

Psychiatrists in particular are interested in descriptive psychopathology, which has the aim of describing the symptoms and syndromes of mental illness. This is both for the diagnosis of individual patients (to see whether the patient’s experience fits any pre-existing classification), or for the creation of diagnostic systems (such as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders or International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems) which define which signs and symptoms should make up a diagnosis, and how experiences and behaviours should be grouped in particular diagnoses (e.g. clinical depression, paraphrenia, paranoia, schizophrenia).

Before diagnosing a psychological disorder, clinicians must study the themes, also known as abnormalities, within psychological disorders. The most prominent themes consist of: deviance, distress, dysfunction and danger. These themes are known as the four Ds, which define abnormality.

The 4 Ds

A description of the four Ds when defining abnormality:

Deviance: this term describes the idea that specific thoughts, behaviours and emotions are considered deviant when they are unacceptable or not common in society. Clinicians must, however, remember that minority groups are not always deemed deviant just because they may not have anything in common with other groups. Therefore, we define an individual’s actions as deviant or abnormal when his or her behaviour is deemed unacceptable by the culture he or she belongs to.

Distress: this term accounts for negative feelings by the individual with the disorder. He or she may feel deeply troubled and affected by their illness.

Dysfunction: this term involves maladaptive behaviour that impairs the individual’s ability to perform normal daily functions, such as getting ready for work in the morning, or driving a car. Such maladaptive behaviours prevent the individual from living a normal, healthy lifestyle. However, dysfunctional behaviour is not always caused by a disorder; it may be voluntary, such as engaging in a hunger strike.

Danger: this term involves dangerous or violent behaviour directed at the individual, or others in the environment. An example of dangerous behaviour that may suggest a psychological disorder is engaging in suicidal activity.

Mental Symptoms

The term psychopathology may also be used to denote behaviors or experiences which are indicative of mental illness, even if they do not constitute a formal diagnosis. For example, the presence of a hallucination may be considered as a psychopathological sign, even if there are not enough symptoms present to fulfill the criteria for one of the disorders listed in the DSM or ICD.

In a more general sense, any behaviour or experience which causes impairment, distress or disability, particularly if it is thought to arise from a functional breakdown in either the cognitive or neurocognitive systems in the brain, may be classified as psychopathology. It remains unclear how strong the distinction between maladaptive traits and mental disorders actually is, e.g. Neuroticism is often described as the personal level of minor psychiatric symptoms.

Image: Man Sweeping the Interpreter’s Parlour by William Blake