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Mental Illness History: Early Beliefs and Theories of Mental Health

Early Beliefs

In the ancient times, the cause of mental illness was believed to be possession by demonic forces. This concept was prevalent even during the Middle Ages in Europe when demon was believed to have possessed the mad man. The way to treat these mad men was through exorcism. These people were usually those who were afflicted with the seizure disorders.

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Psychoanalytic Traditions

Sigmund Freud began the psychoanalytic method of investigate the cause of mental illness. The main aim of the psychoanalytic theory is to understand the unconscious part of the brain, and therefore, differentiate between personalities using the three characters, id, ego, and superego that helped to identify the character type of the patients (Fraiberg, Adelson, & Shapiro, 1975).

According to Freudian theory, the ego and superego, forms the conscience of the human mind and frames the socially discoursed mind of human beings. The theory developed five stages of the psychosexual development namely oral, anal, phallic, latency, and genital. According to the theory, when an individual receives too much or too little from any of the psychosexual stages, there are chances of development of a mental illness.

Multi-Dimensional Approach

The multidimensional approach to studying mental illness believes that the cause of any psychological problem cannot be identified singularly, but as a collection of issues that may trigger the problem. Hence, various factors can contribute to the cause of the mental illness (Eysenck, 2009).

For instance, mental illness caused due to stress may be caused due to divorce, work pressure, death of a partner, etc. However, other factors that may accentuate the issue of stress may be genetic factors, cultural and social factors, and or deficiency of brain chemicals. Hence, this theory believes that the factors that may cause stress interact with each other to cause the mental problem.

Biological Approach

With the publication of Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species in 1859, the idea of connectivity between the origins of all living beings revolutionized the thinking of the psychologists. The importance of heredity in Darwinian theory led to the imminent notion among psychologists that children usually carried some inherent quality derived from his/her parents (Eysenck, 2009).

In addition, Darwin proclaimed that due to the evolutionary process, species undergo different degree of development, which led the psychologists to assume that there might be inherent differences of personality and intelligence between individuals due to differences in their evolutionary development (Eysenck, 2009). The motivational system of humans that dominate the innate needs like hunger and sex dictates the biological need to survive and to procreate (Eysenck, 2009).

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Psychological Approach

The psychological approach to study mental illness began with Plato and Aristotle. However, it evolved with the behaviorialists in the US much later. Their approach entailed that scientific objective could find the root cause of a mental illness in human beings.

However, this method was considered absurd. In the 1950s, the cognitive psychological approach developed with psychologists like George Miller, Donald Broadbent, Jerome Bruner, etc. (Eysenck, 2009) that focused on the internal process and structure that led to cognition such as sensitivity, responsiveness, thinking, and learning (Eysenck, 2009).

Hence, a patient with a problem of social phobia believes that he/she is inadequately capable of social interaction with others (Eysenck, 2009). Thus, the illness arises due to the patient’s misjudged perception of his or her self-cognition.

Emotions Approach

The emotional approach stresses on the influence of emotion in dictating the cause of the mental illness (Izard, 1991). Therefore, such psychological theory reasons that emotional state of mind is responsible for the mental illness that ails a patient. The main idea of the approach is that how emotions like joy, anger, fear, sadness, etc. determines the psychological state of human mind.

Social and Cultural Approach

According to social and cultural psychological theory, mental illnesses transpire due to issues in the social network or in the perception of the cultural discourse of the patient. Social psychologists believe that social networks affect relations and hence control the process of social interaction. Hence, intergroup relations and cultural perceptions such as discrimination and prejudice may become a stressor for mental illness.

Developmental Approach

Sometimes psychologists believe that the symptoms of an illness may differ at various stages of the disorder. For instance, a problem of dissociative disorder in a child occurs due to different factors at different stages of the patient’s development. Hence, the cause of the illness differs at different developmental stages. Thus, the treatment and chances of recovery will also depend on the developmental stage of the patient.


The theories of mental health have undergone a series of evolution over the ages. Psychologists have studied various facets of man’s character to develop a probable theory of defining the causes of mental illness. In the ancient and through the medieval ages, man assumed that mental illness was caused due possession by evil omen. However, advancement in science, these theories gradually changed to provide reasoning that is more conducive.

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Nevertheless, there are various difference in the arguments presented by practitioners and academicians regarding the cause of mental illness. Some believe it occurs due to the psychosis of man while others argue that genes are responsible for such deviant behavior. In addition, certain theories argue that no one reason or one area of reasoning can explain the cause of mental illness in man. It is essentially an amalgamation of reasons that contribute to such behavior.


Eysenck, M. (2009). Fundamentals of Psychology. New York: Psychology Press.

Fraiberg, S., Adelson, E., & Shapiro, V. (1975). Ghosts in the nursery: A psychoanalytic approach to the problems of impaired infant-mother relationships. Journal of the American Academy of Child Psychiatry , 14 (3), 387-421.

Izard, C. E. (1991). The Psychology of Emotions. New York: Springer.

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