What causes abnormal behavior? From demons to the subconscious to cruel treatment, ideas about mental illness have evolved through the centuries. In this lesson, we’ll look at some of the beliefs and reforms in abnormal psychology, from the Neolithic days to the 20th century.

History of Abnormality

Henry suffers from seizures. When they happen, he experiences an odd smell, followed by seeing little lights dancing before his eyes. Finally, if the seizure is bad, he says things that don’t make sense and he convulses. Sometimes, his entire body convulses, leaving him on the ground helpless.

In the 21st century, we know quite a bit about seizures, including what some of the causes are and how to treat them with medication or surgery. But, that wasn’t always the case. Throughout history, people viewed seizures and other abnormal behavior in different ways. Let’s take a brief walk through history and see how mental illness and affliction were viewed at different points in history.

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Archeologists have found skulls that date back tens of thousands of years before Christ that have holes in them. Some of them show evidence that the skulls had begun to heal, which indicates that they were made while the person was alive. Trephination is the practice of drilling a hole in a skull to relieve a brain or mental ailment. In the Neolithic days, trephination was probably used to allow demons to escape from the skull, but in modern neurology, it is sometimes used to treat the swelling of the brain.

Neolithic society and most people during ancient times believed that mental illness and abnormality were due to demons. Henry’s seizures, for example, would have been viewed as possession, and trephination or other religious ceremonies would have been used to treat mental illness.

In some societies, such as ancient Rome, many people believed that mental illness was a punishment from the gods. Angering the gods could, therefore, lead to mental illness in yourself or in others in your family. Though the idea of mental illness as a physical disease dates back to ancient Greece, most people in the ancient world believed in demonology or other types of spiritualism. That is, religious reasons were given for most of the mental illnesses that people experienced.

Witchcraft in the Middle Ages

Demonology and spiritualism persisted for thousands of years. During the Middle Ages, it took the form of viewing mental illness as a result of witchcraft. Some issues, like Henry’s seizures or hallucinations due to schizophrenia, might have been viewed as a result of a curse put on you by a witch. Others might have been seen as a sign of witchcraft, so the mentally ill person would be accused of being a witch.

Many times, abnormal behavior was seen as a sign of weakness or moral vulnerability. Because the mentally ill were viewed as being at fault for their behavior, they were considered to be open to demons and witches. As a result, a deep stigma developed around abnormality. Residue of this can be seen in the stigma around people with psychological issues today, where some people still believe that certain types of mental illness are a sign of weakness.

Psychogenic Theory

In the 18th and 19th centuries, as medical advances brought forth an updated view of the biological underpinnings of abnormality, a new theory also developed. Psychogenic theory views the cause of abnormality as psychological problems.

Of those who believe in psychogenesis, perhaps the most famous and influential was Sigmund Freud. Freud and his followers believed that much mental illness could be explained in the conflict between the subconscious and conscious personalities. For example, Freud might view the cause of depression to be unfulfilled subconscious desires. Many famous psychologists, including Carl Jung and Jean Piaget, developed their own theories of normality and abnormality that were heavily influenced by Freud.

Institutions and Reforms

The first asylum for the mentally ill was probably in the Islamic world in the first century, but they became more common in Europe during the Middle Ages. However, these institutions were not great places. The facilities were unsanitary, and treatments involved sometimes horrifying experiments. One of the most notorious asylums was Bedlam, which was in London. Descriptions of Bedlam from the 18th century show a place of inhumane treatment. During the day, the patients were left to wander in the yard, where tourists and schoolboys watched them and poked fun. At night, they were chained up.

Across the English Channel in Paris, Dr. Philippe Pinel worked as a physician in a mental institution. Horrified by the treatment of patients, Pinel and his predecessor Jean-Baptiste Pussin began a humanitarian movement in the treatment of the mentally ill. They removed the chains from patients who were considered dangerous.

To the surprise of many people, the men became gentler when treated with kindness and released from chains. The success of Pinel and Pussin led others to join the humanitarian movement, including William Tuke in England and Dorothea Dix in the United States. Slowly, the conditions in institutions became better.

Lesson Summary

The way people have viewed abnormality through history has changed and evolved. For many years, mental illness was viewed in terms of demonology, witchcraft and spiritualism. This led to a stigma based on the belief that the mentally ill were evil or weak.

In the 19th century, psychologists like Sigmund Freud developed psychogenic theory, which says that mental illness is a result of psychological issues. The history of mental institutions is a dark one, with many patients being mistreated. However, starting in the 18th century, humanitarian reforms of mental institutions helped safeguard the safety of the mentally ill.

Learning Outcomes

Following this lesson, you will be able to:

  • Summarize how the mentally ill have been treated throughout history
  • Describe theories of abnormality that were based on demonology and witchcraft
  • Explain the development of psychogenic theory
  • Identify major players in mental institution reform