By the end of this section, you will be able to:
- Discuss supernatural perspectives on the origin of psychological disorders, in their historical context
- Describe modern biological and psychological perspectives on the origin of psychological disorders
- Identify which disorders generally show the highest degree of heritability
- Describe the diathesis-stress model and its importance to the study of psychopathology
Scientists, mental health professionals, and cultural healers may adopt different perspectives in attempting to understand or explain the underlying mechanisms that contribute to the development of a psychological disorder. The specific perspective used in explaining a psychological disorder is extremely important. Each perspective explains psychological disorders, their causes or etiology, and effective treatments from a different viewpoint. Different perspectives provide alternate ways for how to think about the nature of psychopathology.
Supernatural Perspectives of Psychological Disorders
For centuries, psychological disorders were viewed from a supernatural perspective: attributed to a force beyond scientific understanding. Those afflicted were thought to be practitioners of black magic or possessed by spirits (Figure PD.6) (Maher & Maher, 1985). For example, convents throughout Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries reported hundreds of nuns falling into a state of frenzy in which the afflicted foamed at the mouth, screamed and convulsed, sexually propositioned priests, and confessed to having carnal relations with devils or Christ. Although, today, these cases would suggest serious mental illness; at the time, these events were routinely explained as possession by devilish forces (Waller, 2009a). Similarly, grievous fits by young girls are believed to have precipitated the witch panic in New England late in the 17th century (Demos, 1983). Such beliefs in supernatural causes of mental illness are still held in some societies today; for example, beliefs that supernatural forces cause mental illness are common in some cultures in modern-day Nigeria (Aghukwa, 2012).
Biological Perspectives of Psychological Disorders
The biological perspective views psychological disorders as linked to biological phenomena, such as genetic factors, chemical imbalances, and brain abnormalities; it has gained considerable attention and acceptance in recent decades (Wyatt & Midkiff, 2006). Evidence from many sources indicates that most psychological disorders have a genetic component; in fact, there is little dispute that some disorders are largely due to genetic factors. The graph in Figure PD.8 shows heritability estimates for schizophrenia.
Findings such as these have led many of today’s researchers to search for specific genes and genetic mutations that contribute to mental disorders. Also, sophisticated neural imaging technology in recent decades has revealed how abnormalities in brain structure and function might be directly involved in many disorders, and advances in our understanding of neurotransmitters and hormones have yielded insights into their possible connections. The biological perspective is currently thriving in the study of psychological disorders.
The Diathesis-Stress Model of Psychological Disorders
Despite advances in understanding the biological basis of psychological disorders, the psychosocial perspective is still very important. This perspective emphasizes the importance of learning, stress, faulty and self-defeating thinking patterns, and environmental factors. Perhaps the best way to think about psychological disorders, then, is to view them as originating from a combination of biological and psychological processes. Many develop not from a single cause, but from a delicate fusion between partly biological and partly psychosocial factors.
The diathesis-stress model (Zuckerman, 1999) integrates biological and psychosocial factors to predict the likelihood of a disorder. This diathesis-stress model suggests that people with an underlying predisposition for a disorder (i.e., a diathesis) are more likely than others to develop a disorder when faced with adverse environmental or psychological events (i.e., stress), such as childhood maltreatment, negative life events, trauma, and so on. A diathesis is not always a biological vulnerability to an illness; some diatheses may be psychological (e.g., a tendency to think about life events in a pessimistic, self-defeating way).
The key assumption of the diathesis-stress model is that both factors, diathesis and stress, are necessary in the development of a disorder. Different models explore the relationship between the two factors: the level of stress needed to produce the disorder is inversely proportional to the level of diathesis.