Sample Psychology Paper on Historical Development of Mental Illness

Mental health is a critical component of overall health as it determines an individual’s ability to think, interact, work, handle stress, and enjoy life among other functions. It includes the social, emotional, and psychological wellbeing. Mental disorders like stress, anxiety, and depression are identified by disruptions in mood or thinking, as well as behavior, which can lead to pain, disability, or death. Although mental health perceptions vary across cultures, pharmacological, psychodynamic, and behavioral or cognitive approaches are influential in the treatment of mental conditions in the contemporary society. The understanding and treatment of mental disorders has evolved from supernatural beliefs to scientific attention today.

Initially, mental illness was believed to be caused by supernatural forces and demonic possession, which attracted primitive treatments including trepanning to “remove” the evil spirits (Jutras, 2018). These primitive beliefs held steady throughout the European Middle Ages, exposing surfers of mental illness to solitary confinement in the asylums and physical restraint. Modern theories of psychopathology began to emerge in the medical and the entire social community in the 19th and the early 20th centuries (Jutras, 2018). Sigmund Feud (1856-1939) proposed the psychodynamic theory which operated on the premise that mental illness results from the existence of unresolved unconscious motives and could be resolved by open dialogues with the subjects. The second theoretical approach, which was advanced by John B. Watson (1878-1958), was the theory of behaviorism. The American psychologist posited that mental illness was a product of behavioral conditioning and suggested adaptive reconditioning as treatment.

The exploration of the two theories of psychopathology paved way to modern approaches of diagnosing and treating mental illness, creating need for the systematic categorization of the condition. The rise of mental issues among veterans in post-Second World War acted as an impetus for the development of a formal classification system whereby the first edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) was developed (Kiehl & Lushing, 2014). During this time, mental disorders were classified according to the antecedent socio-environmental and biological causes but the focus later shifted to the potential etiological causative elements.

The classification spawned studies and treatment of mental illness, which expanded rapidly in the mid-twentieth century (Kiehl & Lushing, 2014). The catecholamine hypothesis (1950s), which proposed that mental illness resulted from low levels of catecholamine, was one of the pharmacological perspectives and an influential milestone that was inspired by research into the activity of drugs like reserpine and monoamine oxidase inhibitors (Jutras, 2018). This psychological paradigm leaned towards the nature approach since the causative agent was linked to genetics and disposition. Shizophrenia, for instance, caused by decreased prefrontal cortical efficiency, is genetic and is likely to recur in families.

Psychotherapeutic approaches, stemming from Freund’s psychodynamic approach, also underwent significant development. Psychologists like Albert Ellis (1913-2007) and Aaron T. Beck (b.1921) advocated for treatment aimed at addressing maladaptive cognitions and emotions of mental disorders. After incorporating principles of behaviorism, psychotherapy led to the development of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), a common strategy applied in the treatment of anxiety and depression today (Kiehl & Lushing, 2014). The CBT psychological paradigm leans towards the nurture effect of mental health due to the role of the environment. For instance, depression has been linked to physical or sexual abuse, childhood trauma, living in a dysfunctional home, or enduring extreme stress (Johnson, 2017). Interaction with the environment induces mental illness.

Psychopathological attitudes and views have considerably changed, beginning from supernatural beliefs to science application. The interaction of psychodynamic theory and behaviorism paved way to modern pharmacological and psychotherapeutic perspectives of mental illness, which address both role of genetics and disposition and the environment. Substantial scientific progress has since then been made in the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of mental illness.




Johnson, E. (2017, March 15). Nature vs. nurture and the effects of mental illness. Mental Health America of Lancaster County. Retrieved from

Jutras, M. (2017, March). Historical perspectives on the theories, diagnosis, and treatment of mental illness. BCMJ, 59(2), 86-88. Retrieved from

Kiehl, K. & Lushing, J. (2014). Psychopathy. Scholarpedia. Retrieved from