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There are seven major approaches to the treatment of mental illness. In this lesson, we’ll examine each approach, as well as how they each explain and treat abnormal behavior, thoughts and emotions.

Abnormal Psychology

Jenni is depressed.

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She feels sad and isn’t interested in hanging out with her friends or any of the other things that she used to love to do. Some days, she can’t even get out of bed. Depression, like other mental illness and abnormal behaviors, is studied in the branch of psychology known as abnormal psychology.But psychologists don’t approach abnormal psychology the same way. For instance, if you asked several psychologists why Jenni is depressed, you might get very different answers. In general, there are seven approaches to the study of abnormal psychology: biological, psychodynamic, behavioral, cognitive, humanistic, sociocultural and diathesis-stress.

Let’s look a little closer at each of these.

Biological Approach

The biological approach to abnormal psychology focuses on the medical issues that underlie the mental illness. These issues may involve physical illness, damage or lesions to the brain or chemical imbalances. Biological treatments are often pharmacological; that is, most biological treatments involve drugs.Remember Jenni? The biological approach to abnormal psychology would attribute Jenni’s depression to a chemical imbalance in the brain.

In that case, Jenni would be prescribed an antidepressant, which would work to correct the chemical imbalance.

Psychodynamic Approach

The psychodynamic approach views abnormality as a result of conflict between unconscious urges and conscious desires. Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychodynamic theory, said that when conflict in early life is not resolved, we repress things and that leads to mental illness.Psychodynamic therapists focus on talking about childhood issues and analyzing dreams. Let’s look at Jenni again. According to the psychodynamic approach, Jenni’s depression might be caused by her repressing anger. When repressed, anger turns inward and becomes self-hate, which then causes depression.

Treatment would include talking with a therapist about everything from childhood incidents related to anger to the dream she had last night.

Behavioral Approach

The behavioral approach to abnormal psychology is about the observable behaviors of the patient. Behavioral psychologists believe that we learn behaviors through a complex system of rewards and punishments. Behavioral treatments focus on changing the behaviors of the mentally ill, not on addressing the underlying causes of the behaviors. In the case of Jenni, a behavioral therapist would look at Jenni’s behaviors of disengaging from her friends and staying in bed all day as the main problem.

They would seek to either punish these behaviors or reward good behaviors, like when she socializes or gets up and goes to work.

Cognitive Approach

Psychologists who follow the cognitive approach explain abnormality in terms of the thought processes of the patient. Thought processes and perceptions are viewed as a major force on the mentally ill, and treatment focuses on changing maladaptive thought patterns.

For example, if Jenni were to go to a cognitive therapist, the focus would be on changing the thought patterns that contribute to Jenni’s depression. Jenni might be depressed because she thinks she’s worthless, and a cognitive psychologist would help Jenni change her thought pattern to focus on her positive qualities.

Humanistic Approach

The humanistic approach says that abnormality occurs when people are not able to be their authentic selves. According to humanistic psychology, people can only be their authentic selves when their physical and social needs are met first.

However, because many people do not have those needs met, they are not able to pursue their deepest, truest passions.A humanistic psychologist might view Jenni’s depression as a result of her inability to be her authentic self. For example, perhaps deep down she really wants to be an artist, but has been pressured into becoming an accountant. A humanistic psychologist might help her realize her deep dream of being an artist, and work out a way to meet her basic needs while still pursuing that dream.

Sociocultural Approach

People don’t live in a vacuum, which is why the sociocultural approach looks at the impact of society on abnormal psychology.

Whether it is family dynamics, cultural expectations or societal biases, sociocultural psychologists look at the way society can cause or exacerbate abnormality. Treatments include therapy, including group sessions, where people can get support and find a way to deal with the pressures of the world around them.In Jenni’s example, a sociocultural explanation for her depression might be that she is involved in a bad relationship that’s bringing her down. By attending a therapy group that includes others in bad relationships, Jenni can begin to see the way to deal with her family issues or to find the strength to walk away from the relationship.

Diathesis-Stress Approach

The last approach to abnormality, the diathesis-stress model, states that some people are vulnerable to mental illness, and therefore people have varying levels of stress at which they will develop a mental illness.For example, Jenni may be vulnerable to develop depression due to biological or situational factors.

She might have a genetic predisposition to depression, or she might have grown up in an unsteady household that exposes her to a predisposition to depression. When something bad happens, like a bad breakup, she might then become depressed.In contrast, Jessie, Jenni’s friend, might not have a genetic or situational predisposition to depression. When something bad happens to Jessie, she just shrugs it off instead of becoming depressed. In the diathesis-stress model, ‘diathesis’ is considered to be your predisposition, or your vulnerability to a mental illness. ‘Stress’ is the life event that precipitates your development of that mental illness.

Lesson Summary

Abnormal psychology is the study of mental illness and abnormal behavior. There are seven major approaches to abnormal psychology. The biological approach says psychological disorders are a result of physical issues. The psychodynamic theory views psychological disorders as a result of unconscious desires. The behavioral model is about the observable behaviors of the disorders.

The cognitive approach seeks to change a person’s thoughts in order to treat abnormality.The humanistic approach says that psychological problems are due to people’s inability to be their true selves. The sociocultural approach views psychological problems as being due in part to society and family. Finally, the diathesis-stress model says that mental illness is a result of both a predisposition to a disorder and a stressful life event. Each has their own way of explaining and treating mental illness.

Learning Outcome

Completing this video lesson will help students explain and illustrate the seven approaches to abnormal psychology: biological, psychodynamic, behavioral, cognitive, humanistic, sociocultural, and diathesis-stress.

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