Today, the medical model continues to be a driving force in the diagnosing and treatment of psychopathology, although research has shown the powerful effects that psychology has on a person’s behavior, emotion, and cognitions. This chapter will discuss the various ways mental illness is classified as well as the effects of mental illness on the individual and society.
Psychopathology is a term which refers to either the study of mental illness or mental distress or the manifestation of behaviours and experiences which may be indicative of mental illness or psychological impairment.
The origin of the term “psychopathology” dates back to 1913 when this scientific discipline was first introduced by Karl Jaspers, a German/Swiss philosopher and psychiatrist. This new framework for understanding the mental experience of individuals followed a long history of varied attempts at making meaning out of the “abnormal experiences” of individuals.
In short, it can be thought of as the in-depth study of problems related to mental health. Just like pathology is the study of the nature of disease (including causes, development, and outcomes), psychopathology is the study of the same concepts within the realm of mental health (or illness).
The many different professions may be involved in studying mental illness 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, many different specialties may be involved in the study of psychopathology.
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 specialised 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) which define exactly which signs and symptoms should make up a diagnosis, and how experiences and behaviours should be grouped in particular diagnoses (e.g. clinical depression, schizophrenia).
Psychopathology is not the same as psychopathy, which has to do with antisocial personality disorders and criminality.
At the research level, you will find research psychologists, psychiatrists, neuroscientists, and others trying to make sense of the different manifestations of mental disorders that are seen in clinical practice.
Distinguishing Psychopathology vs. Normal Behavior
How do psychologists and psychiatrists decide what extends beyond normal behavior to enter the territory of “psychopathology?” Psychiatric disorders can be conceptualized as referring to problems in four areas: deviance, distress, dysfunction, and danger.
For example, if you were experiencing symptoms of depression and went to see a psychiatrist, you would be assessed according to a list of symptoms (most likely those in the DSM-5):
- Deviance refers to thoughts, emotions, or behaviors that are unacceptable or not common based on currently held cultural beliefs. In the case of depression, you might report thoughts of guilt or worthlessness that are not common among other people.
- Distress refers to negative feelings either felt within a person or that result for people around that person. In the case of depression, you might report extreme feelings of distress over sadness or guilt.
- Dysfunction refers to the inability to achieve daily functions like going to work. In the case of depression, you might report that you can’t get out of bed in the morning or that daily tasks take you much longer than they should.
- Danger refers to violent behavior toward yourself or others. In the case of depression, this could include reporting that you are having thoughts of suicide or harming yourself.
In this way, you can see that the distinction between normal versus psychopathological behavior comes down to how issues are affecting you or the people around you. Often, it is not until things come to a crisis point that a diagnosis is made, because this is when these aspects really show themselves.