A Short History of Abnormal Psychology

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A Short History of Abnormal Psychology

Abnormal Psychology: Milestones and Achievements

As society’s perspective of normal and abnormal rapidly evolves, psychologists find it difficult to classify behaviors into either category. To this day, there is no absolute definition of abnormal psychology because societal norms vary from one culture to the next.

Abnormal psychology concentrates on psychological disorders and how they influence human behavior, particularly when leading to psychopathology. (1) Our helpful timeline outlines how abnormal psychology and its treatment methods have evolved throughout the centuries.

Early Renaissance

  • Individuals with mental disorders were often treated at home.
  • Local parishes began providing financial aid to families impacted by mental illness.

Community mental health programs strove to provide gentle and respectful treatment.

  • The humanism movement began.

As recognizing mental health disorders became more common during the early Renaissance, hospitals and churches started operating as asylums to provide widespread treatment. (2) The patients in these asylums often had a low quality of care due to overpopulation in the facilities and a staff that lacked knowledge about mental illness. That soon changed with the introduction of scientific questioning during the humanism movement.

The Renaissance humanism movement began during the 13th and 14th Centuries. It was a system of education that originated in Italy and eventually spread throughout out other parts of Europe. At the core of the Renaissance humanism movement is the belief that humans should be shown understanding and compassion. (3) During this time, doctors began utilizing the power of suggestion on the human mind, which today is known as hypnosis.

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18th Century

  • The beginning of the New Age Reform.
  • Commitment to asylums was still considered the norm, and inhumane treatments were being phased out through education about mental illness.
  • William Tuke, an English businessman and philanthropist, opened the York Retreat in England, a house that sought to provide humane treatment for those with mental illnesses. (4)

The 18th Century was full of early psychologists who worked hard to educate doctors on mental illnesses and how to appropriately treat them. Philippe Pinel, a French physician, performed an experiment in 1792 that translated into improved quality of care for patients. He helped deploy moral management, which sought to treat those displaying abnormal behaviors based on their social, individual, and occupational needs. (5)

19th Century

  • (1808) Franz Gall creates a content piece about phrenology, which is the belief that the shape of a person’s skull reveals personality traits.
  • (1878) G. Stanley Hall becomes the first American to graduate with a doctorate in psychology. Hall went on to create the American Psychological Association.
  • (1886) Sigmund Freud developed his personality theory, which has continued to impact abnormal psychology treatment methods today.

A large portion of patients who had been kept away from society for decades improved very quickly due to respectful and humane treatment. The moral treatment of patients was highly prioritized, but there was still room for improvements in quality of care provided to patients.

Dorothea Dix played an instrumental role in the field of abnormal psychology during the 19th Century. She investigated the challenges faced by mental health treatment centers and discovered underfunding and an unregulated system contributed to the demise of humane treatment. She lobbied for change and her efforts resulted in the building of asylums for the first time in the United States. These asylums utilized treatment methods that are considered unethical by today’s medical standards, which were later removed from practice. (6)

20th Century

  • By the end of World War II, most psychologists specialized in particular subdisciplines, with abnormal psychology being a chosen field of study.
  • Carl Rogers created client-centered therapy, which seeks to tailor treatment methods according to the patient’s life goals and potential achievements.
  • (1952) The first Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders was published.
  • Abnormal behaviors were viewed according to two perspectives: psychogenic and somatogenic.
  • Existential philosophers created the existential view, which is a belief that everyone has the freedom to find meaning in life or to avoid taking responsibility for actions.

Psychogenic: the belief that the mental disorder has a psychological origin rather than a physical origin.

Somatogenic: the belief that the mental disorder is derived from one or more physiological origins rather than a psychogenic origin.

Once hypnotism gained widespread popularity in the 20th Century for its effectiveness in treating abnormal behaviors, the psychogenic perspective became widely accepted. It’s important to note, however, that psychoanalytic treatment methods showed little promise in being able to treat severely ill patients.

Deinstitutionalization became a common practice in the 20th Century, and many state institutions were shut down. In 1963, the Community Mental Health Centers Act was created to strengthen the future of quality patient care. As a result, research facilities started garnering substantial financial support, and the idea of community-based care began to flourish. (2)

Abnormal Psychology Treatment Today

  • Research indicates Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids counteract the onset of psychiatric disorders, particularly paranoid schizophrenia.
  • Researchers seek to cure “incurable” mental health disorders.
  • Holistic treatment methods are highly encouraged.

Abnormal psychology research today places a heavy emphasis on the study of brain matter and neurotransmitters. Scientists and physicians look closely at hormones and genetics to determine their impact on the human brain. (7) Many forms of prescription medication are used to treat those suffering from mental health issues, but due to extreme withdrawal symptoms and high addiction rates, we are seeing the start of a movement that focuses on holistic treatment methods. (8)

If you’re interested in abnormal psychology, consider earning a psychology degree from King University. Our program will prepare you for careers such as clinical psychologist, neuropsychologist, research psychologist, a clinical social worker, and more.


  1. www.simplypsychology.org
  2. www.newworldencyclopedia.org
  3. www.britannica.com
  4. www.bbc.co.uk
  5. www.famousscientists.org
  6. www.courses.lumenlearning.com
  7. www.psychologytoday.com
  8. www.consumer.healthday.com