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Historical Background of Psychological Disorders

Historical Background of Psychological Disorders

Psychological disorders are patterns of thoughts, feelings, or behaviors that cause significant distress or impairment in a person’s functioning. The study of psychological disorders, or psychopathology, has a long and complex history that reflects changing social and cultural attitudes, as well as scientific and philosophical developments.

One way to understand the history of psychological disorders is to examine the three main models that have been used to explain their causes: supernatural, biological, and psychological. These models are not mutually exclusive, and they often coexist or influence each other throughout history.

The supernatural model attributes psychological disorders to forces beyond human control, such as evil spirits, demons, gods, curses, or planetary influences. This model was dominant in ancient times, when people believed that mental illness was a sign of divine punishment or demonic possession. Some of the treatments based on this model included exorcism, prayer, ritual, magic, or trepanation (drilling holes in the skull to release the evil spirits).

The biological model assumes that psychological disorders are caused by physical problems, such as brain defects, infections, injuries, or genetic factors. This model emerged in ancient Greece, where Hippocrates proposed that mental illness was a result of an imbalance of four bodily fluids, or humors: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. He also identified syphilis as a disease that could affect the brain and cause mental symptoms. The biological model gained more support in the 19th and 20th centuries, with the discoveries of various neurological and psychiatric disorders, such as epilepsy, schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s disease, and depression. Some of the treatments based on this model included bloodletting, purging, surgery, drugs, electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), or psychosurgery.

The psychological model focuses on the role of psychological factors, such as emotions, thoughts, learning, personality, and social interactions, in the development and maintenance of psychological disorders. This model emerged in the 18th and 19th centuries, when some reformers advocated for more humane and compassionate care for people with mental illness. They challenged the view that mental illness was a result of animalism or moral degeneration, and proposed that it was influenced by environmental stressors, traumatic experiences, or faulty learning. Some of the pioneers of this model were Philippe Pinel, who introduced moral treatment in France; Dorothea Dix, who campaigned for mental hygiene in the United States; Sigmund Freud, who developed psychoanalysis; and Ivan Pavlov and John B. Watson, who founded behaviorism. Some of the treatments based on this model included psychotherapy, hypnosis, relaxation techniques, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), or humanistic therapy.

The history of psychological disorders is not a linear progression from superstition to science, but rather a complex interplay of different perspectives and approaches that reflect the cultural and historical context of each era. Today, most psychologists adopt a biopsychosocial approach that integrates biological, psychological, and social factors in understanding and treating psychological disorders.


– History of mental disorders – Wikipedia. (n.d.). Retrieved September 3rd 2023 from
– History of Mental Illness – Culture and Psychology. (n.d.). Retrieved September 3rd 2023 from
– Comer R.J., & Nolen-Hoeksema S. (2019). Abnormal Psychology (10th ed.). New York: Worth Publishers.
– Barlow D.H., & Durand V.M. (2018). Abnormal Psychology: An Integrative Approach (8th ed.). Boston: Cengage Learning.

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