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What Is Mental Illness And Where Does It Come From

What is Mental Illness, and Where Does It Come From?


By the end of the lesson, students will be able to:

  • Explain how abnormal behavior is viewed, including statistical infrequency, violation of norms, personal distress, disability or dysfunction,  and unexpectedness.
  • Explain the differing views about the causes of abnormal behavior throughout the course of history, including early demonology,  somatogenesis, and demonology in the Dark Ages, the development of asylums, and the development of contemporary thought.
  • Evaluate the various paradigms and their relationship to the development, treatment, and perpetuation of abnormal behavior.
  • Demonstrate an understanding of an eclectic approach to explaining abnormal behavior.
  • Demonstrate an understanding of the history, uses, and structure of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th ed. Text rev. (DSM-IV-TR), and apply it to various case examples.
  • Expand on the criticisms of classifying abnormal behavior. 


Abnormal human behavior has remained much of a mystery to scientists and physicians until recent years.  Compared to much of the rest of scientific world, the area of abnormal psychology is in its infancy. It has only been in the last 60 years that the study of abnormal psychology has made great strides; however, these strides have not been without controversy and criticism.  As of today,  there are many views of what constitutes abnormal behavior, what causes abnormal behavior, and when abnormal behavior becomes an actual mental disorder.  This lesson will explore the various origins of the study of abnormal behavior, aspects that make defining abnormal behavior difficult, and the current trends in defining and explaining human behavior.  As part of this exploration, course participants will have the opportunity to examine their own beliefs of abnormal behavior and compare these beliefs to what the psychiatric community defines as behavior atypical enough to constitute a mental disorder.

Defining Abnormal Behavior

Consider the following scenario. Is this individual’s behavior abnormal? 

The subject, an adult male, is extremely arrogant and overbearing to his equals.  He is very competitive, and he looks down on his rivals.  He sometimes mistreats the people who work for him.  He once physically abused a young man who was suffering from severe stress.   He claims not only to be reincarnated but also to know exactly who he was in his past lives. (Eder, 1985)

Is this individual displaying abnormal behavior?   Does he have a mental disorder?   This individual is George Patton, a highly decorated United States Army general.  The “slapping incident”  occurred when Patton addressed a wounded soldier and the soldier made several comments indicating cowardice behavior to Patton.  As a result, Patton began to yell at the soldier and then slapped him (Province, 2002).   Consider this: George Patton believed in some premises of the Hindu religion and as part of these religious beliefs, he believed in reincarnation.

This scenario is given as an example to illustrate that abnormal behavior is not always easy to define.  What is abnormal in one culture may not be abnormal in another.   In addition, culture changes over time, so what was once considered diagnosable abnormal behavior will not necessarily remain diagnosable.  Early in the history of the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), a manual produced by the American Psychiatric Association that defines criteria for all identified mental illnesses, homosexuality was considered a mental disorder (“Gay,”  2004).  However, as society has changed,  homosexuality has been removed from the DSM as a mental disorder.

For this reason, psychologists’ often study human behavior to identify what is typical behavior for a specific culture.   From defining typical behavior, one can then theorize about abnormal or atypical behavior.  Understand that atypical behavior does not always constitute a diagnosable mental disorder.  In order for one’s abnormal behavior to warrant a possible diagnosis of a mental disorder, one must have:

A clinically significant behavioral or psychological syndrome or pattern that occurs in an individual and that is associated with present distress (e.g., a painful symptom) or disability (i.e., impairment in one or more important areas of functioning) or with a significantly increased risk of suffering death,  pain, disability, or an important loss of freedom. Whatever its original cause,  it must currently be considered a manifestation of a behavioral, psychological,  or biological dysfunction in the individual. (American Psychiatric Association [APA], 1994, p.  Xxi)

It is estimated that 22.1% of Americans ages 18 and older, about 1 in 5 adults, suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year (“Numbers,”  2001).

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