abnormal psychology

Evolution of Abnormal Psychology

Psychology began as a philosophical idea of dualism that believed the mind and body operated separately from one another (Goodwin, 2008).  Scientists became intrigued at the philosophical assumptions and desired to learn more about the human experience.  Assumptions derived from ideas based on observations of behavior and the consequences following (Goodwin, 2008).  In 1879, Psychology became an actual science with the establishment of the first psychology lab established by Wilhelm Wundt (Kowalski & Westen, 2011).  Abnormal psychology studies the behaviors perceived as deviating from the societal norm, although there is no definitive definition because the societal norm varies among culture (Butcher, Hooley, and Mineka, 2014).  Beginning in the Stone Age and through the present day, abnormal psychology is a prime example of evolution.


  • Stone Age: During the Stone Age, abnormal behavior was attributed to evil spirits that were thought to take over the mind producing abnormal behavior in individuals.  Releasing spirits was necessary for individuals to demonstrate the normal behavior.  Evil spirits released through trephination (drilling a hole in the skull) or exorcism (evicting spirits through religious approach) (Butcher, 2014). During this period, treatment of mental illness was rendered inhumane and later thought to have caused more harm to the individual’s mental state than good (Butcher, 2014).
  • Middle Ages:  The first mental hospital became established in Baghdad in 792A. D. and humane treatment of the mentally ill became popular eliciting positive results for patients.  In the later middle ages, mass madness, often leading to hysteria, periodically took effect at times of oppression, famine, and disease epidemics.  During this time,   Treatment was often left to the clergy or religious practices that included exorcism, prayer (laying of “kind” hands) or a prescription of a concoction of herbs.  The perception of hysteria was a supernatural occurrence that should be handled through superstitious cures and spells (Butcher, 2014).
  • Renaissance: Humanistic approach took effect and the evolution of the perception of mental illness adopts the thought of a real illness.    Asylums were developed to house those deemed insane in an effort to remove them from society.  Although the focus was to attempt treatment, the living circumstances were often cruel, filthy and sometimes intolerable.  Asylums quickly spread throughout countries.  Treatment was aggressive and aimed at finding a balance between the body and brain through the use of drugs, restraints, and punishment treatments such as water and electric shock (Butcher, 2014).
  • Late Eighteenth Century: Time of humanitarian reform.  Restraints and filth were removed allowing patients to live in kind and accepting environment.  Healthy diets and humane treatment became vital to patients. These efforts reduced the symptoms in patients and increased public awareness and acceptance of the mentally ill.  Oral management swept through America.  Moral management focused on the patient’s social, individual and occupational well-being that emphasized spiritual and moral well-being by rehabilitating their personal “character” rather than their illness.  By the late nineteenth century, moral management was abandoned, and the mental hygiene movement came into effect.  The mental hygiene movement focused on the physical well-being of the patient but abandoned the treatments of the mental illness leaving them abandoned and dependent on others for the remainder of their lives.  The movement set the patient up for a life of discomfort and discontentment. (Butcher, 2014).
  • Nineteenth Century: Mental hospitals were controlled by the typical layperson.  Psychiatrists play an inconsequential role in the treatment of the mentally ill as effective treatments were unavailable at the time.  Towards the end of the century, psychiatrists began incorporating moral and mental hygiene management for the mentally ill, allowing them to gain control of the mental hospitals.  During this movement, psychiatrists earned respect and began diagnosing a mental illness such as neurasthenia (depression) linking physical symptoms to medical conditions that could then be treated by medicinal practitioners (Butcher, 2014).
  • Twentieth Century: Asylums continued to utilize harsh treatment of patients.  Little education was available to the public, as knowledge into the insane was limited.  Asylums became widespread and made available to individuals suffering from severe mental illness who experienced lengthy stays as treatment was minimal, and the harsh conditions sometimes cause symptoms to intensify.  However, in 1946, asylum reform began insisting more humane conditions for the mentally ill.  Additionally, deinstitutionalization began, and patients could undergo treatment outside the institution due to the medications that emerged in the 1950’s alleviating symptoms of some illnesses.  Deinstitutionalization has reflected positive benefits for some, but those with severe mental illness seem to be creating issues for the one suffering and society as a whole (Butcher, 2014).  During this period, a link between the brain and mental illness, there are organic bases to mental illnesses.  Scientists found that the brain was the primary link to mental illness (Butcher, 2014).


The history of abnormal psychology indicates the drastic evolution of the mental illness.  The original perception of mental illness was a supernatural overtaking of an individual that many times resulted in heinous treatment of torture and death.  Today, scientists have been able to link mental illness directly to brain imbalances and imperfections.  Today, mental illness can sometimes be treated with simple speaking, or even through the use of medications to bring the brain and body back into balance.  Mental illness is accepted today more than ever as there is a better understanding of the causes, effects, and treatments of the illnesses. 


Butcher., J. N., Hooley, J. M., and Mineka, S., (2014) Abnormal Psychology (16th ed.) Published by Pearson.

Goodwin, C. J. (2008). A History of Modern Psychology (3rd ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Kowalski, R., & Westen, D. (2011). Psychology (6th ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.


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