What exactly is psychopathology? (2023)

One of the first uses of the term "psychopathology" dates back to 1913, when the bookGeneral Psychopathologywas first introduced by Karl Jaspers, a German/Swiss philosopher and psychiatrist. This new framework for understanding individuals' mental experience followed a long history of varied attempts to make sense of "abnormal experiences."

What is psychopathology?

How do we currently define psychopathology? In short, this discipline can be understood as an in-depth study of problems related to mental health. Like thispathologyis the study of the nature of the disease (including causes, development and results),psychopathologyit is the study of the same concepts in the field of mental health (or illness).

This study of mental illness can include a long list of elements: symptoms, behaviors, causes (genetics, biology, social, psychological), course, development, categorization, treatments, strategies and much more.

In this way, psychopathology tries to explore problems related to mental health: how to understand them, how to classify them and how to solve them. Because of this, the subject of psychopathology extends from research to treatment and covers all the steps in between. The better we understand why a mental disorder develops, the easier it will be to find effective treatments.

What exactly is psychopathology? (1)

Signs of Psychopathology

Signs of psychopathology vary depending on the nature of the condition. Some of the signs that a person may be experiencing some form of psychopathology include:

  • Changes in eating habits
  • mood swings
  • excessive worry,anxietyor fear
  • feelings of anguish
  • inability to concentrate
  • irritability or anger
  • Low energy or feelings of fatigue
  • sleep disorders
  • thoughts ofself-mutilationor suicide
  • Problems coping with daily life
  • Withdrawal from activities and friends

Types, symptoms and diagnosis of mental illness

Diagnostic Systems

Professionals involved in the research and treatment of psychopathology must use systems to arrive at conclusions about the best course of action for treatment. These systems are used to classify what are considered mental health disorders. Currently, the most widely used systems for classifying mental illness in the United States are as follows.

Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM)

ODiagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders(DSM) is created by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) as an assessment system for mental illness. ODSM-5-TR (text revisions)published in 2022 is the current edition and includes identifiable criteria that mental health professionals use to arrive at a specific diagnosis.

The criteria and list of disorders sometimes change as new research emerges. Some examples of disorders listed in the DSM-5-TR include major depressive disorder,bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, paranoid personality disorder andsocial anxiety disorder.

Overview of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM)

International Classification of Diseases (ICD)

CDI is a system similar to DSM. Now in its eleventh version, the ICD was developed over a century ago and was taken over by the World Health Organization (WHO) when it was founded in 1948. So how does ICD-11 differ from the DSM-5-TR?

First, ICD-11 is produced by a global agency (the World Health Organization), while DSM-5-TR is produced by a national professional association (the American Psychiatric Association). ICD-11 is approved by the World Health Assembly composed of ministers of health from 193 WHO member countries.

Second, the objective of ICD-11 is to reduce the global burden of disease. Includes medical and mental health diagnoses. Third, ICD-11 is freely available on the Internet. In contrast, the DSM must be purchased, and the American Psychiatric Association derives revenue from sales of the book and related products.

Still, the DSM-5-TR is the standard classification among American mental health professionals and is generally used for treatment planning and insurance purposes.

Search Domain Criteria (RDoC)

In addition to these standard mental disorder classification systems, there is also a burgeoning area of ​​research and theory that moves away from the checklist format of making diagnoses. Since it is possible to havesymptoms of a mental illnessbut do not meet the criteria for an official diagnosis, descriptive psychopathology studies hold promise for a better system of understanding.

RDoC is a research initiative of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) based on translational research from areas such as neuroscience, genomics andexperimental psychology. In this way, the RDoC is involved in describing the signs and symptoms of psychopathology, rather than grouping them into disorders, as has historically been done with the DSM and CID.

The RDoC's main objective is to plan and finance research.

Who works in psychopathology?

Just as the scope of psychopathology is broad, from research to treatment, so is the list of types of professionals who tend to be involved in the field. At the research level, you will meet psychologists, psychiatrists, neuroscientists and other researchers trying to understand the different manifestations of mental disorders observed in clinical practice.

At the clinical level, you will find many types of practitioners attempting to apply existing diagnostic systems to provide effective treatments for individuals living with psychopathology. This can include the following and more:

  • clinical psychologists
  • advisors
  • Criminologistas
  • Marriage and family therapists
  • nursing professionals
  • psychiatric nurses
  • psychiatrists
  • social workers
  • sociologists

Identifying Psychopathology

How do psychologists and psychiatrists decide what goes 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 evaluated against a list of symptoms (probably those from the DSM-5-TR):

  • Detour: This term refers to thoughts, emotions or behaviors that deviate from what is common or are at odds with what is considered acceptable in society. In the case of depression, you may report thoughts of guilt or worthlessness that are not common among other people.
  • Suffering: This symptom refers to negative feelings felt within a person or that result in discomfort in others around them. In the case of depression, you may report extreme feelings of distress from sadness or guilt.
  • dysfunction: With this symptom, professionals look for the inability to perform daily functions such as going to work. In the case of depression, you may report that you can't get out of bed in the morning or that everyday tasks take a lot longer than they should.
  • Danger: This term refers to behavior that could put you or someone else at some type of harmful risk. 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 behavior and psychopathological behavior comes down to how the problems affect you or the people around you.

Often, it is only when things come to a head that the diagnosis is made when someone contacts a medical or mental health professional.


There is no single cause for psychopathology. There are several factors that can increase your risk of mental illness, including:

  • Biological factors, including genes and brain chemistry
  • chronic medical conditions
  • Family members with mental illness
  • feelings of isolation
  • lack of social support
  • substance oralcohol use
  • Traumatic or stressful experiences

It's also important to realize that mental health can change over time. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests that 50% of all people will be diagnosed with a mental illness at some point in their lives.


Some of the different types of psychopathology include, but are not limited to:

  • anxiety disorders
  • bipolar disorders
  • depressive disorders
  • Disruptive, impulse control and conduct disorders
  • dissociative disorders
  • Eating disorders
  • neurocognitive disorders
  • Neurodevelopmental disorders
  • obsessive-compulsive disorders
  • personality disorders
  • Schizophreniaspectrum and other psychotic disorders
  • sleep disorders
  • Somatic symptom disorders
  • substance related disorders
  • Trauma and stress related disorders

Explore psychological disorders from the DSM-5-TR

Dimensional definitions vs. categorical

It is easy to see that historically there has been some disagreement about what constitutes mental illness. At the same time, even in the current field, there are disagreements about how best to conceptualize mental illness.

Are all DSM disorders distinct or are there higher order overarching factors that play a role in mental illness and that could better explain why some people are diagnosed with many illnesses (calledcomorbidity)?

Some research suggests that there are neuropsychological dimensions that run through current diagnostic categories, noting the problems inherent in the “checklist” approach to mental health.

It can be misleading to group the disorders as separate when there can be so much overlap between people diagnosed with different disorders (and so many differences between people diagnosed with the same disorder).

Hopefully, in the future, better diagnostic systems will be developed that will take into account all these issues in the field of psychopathology.

History of the Study of Mental Illnesses

We have come a long way since the beginning of trying to make sense of mental illness. Although individuals with mental health problems still facestigmaand lack of understanding, things were very different in the past.

Hippocrates, the fourth-century BC Greek physician, rejected the notion of evil spirits and argued instead that mental illness was a disease of the brain related to imbalances of bodily humors, or chemicals in bodily fluids. Around the same time, the philosopher Plato argued that mental suffering involved questions of virtue, morality, and the soul.

If you lived in the 16th century with a mental health problem, chances are you wouldn't have been treated very well. At that time, mental illness was often viewed from a religious or superstitious point of view. Consequently, it was assumed that people who displayed strange behavior must have been overtaken by evil spirits or demons. The cure? You may have been tortured to bring him back to sanity. If that didn't work? Execution.

Later, in the 19th century, interest arose in the role of childhood and trauma in the development of mental illness. Following in the footsteps of this era,Sigmund Freudintroduced psychotherapy to deal with these unresolved childhood issues.

As of today, our understanding of mental illness has broadened and, fortunately, so have the available treatments.

A Word from Verywell

Are we any closer to a proper understanding of psychopathology? This still needs to be debated. However, we are certainly moving towards a research program that holds promise for characterizing psychopathology in increasingly useful ways.

What is a psychological disorder?


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