Sci's Take: What is Psychopathology?

Nov 05 2010 Published by under Behavioral Neuro, Neuroscience, Uncategorized

Jason had an idea to do a mini carnival of neuro-type and psych-type bloggers on this, and I though it would be cool, though admittedly right now I'm so swamped for topics I hardly needed another one!

But here's Sci's Take.


(Heh, from here, appropriately enough)

To start out with. Psychopathology is a word I never use. Never. In fact I didn't even know it existed until I got Jason's email. Obviously I knew immediately what it meant, but scientists in my field basically don't use terms like "psychpathology". To be honest, we don't even use the term "mental illness" all that much. Usually, we are a LOT more specific, referring specifically to ADHD, major depressive disorder, anxiety, PTSD, schizophrenia, etc. In addition, psychopathology refers often to the studies of BEHAVIORS associated with mental disorders. While we do study behavior, we don't tend to do it so much in humans.

And I have to say I like our specific natures in this regard. While I don't doubt that psychopathology is a useful term when used in terms of maladaptive behaviors...I'm not sure it's the best one. The reason I'm not sure is that, to me, psychopathology kind of sends off little blips of mind/brain dualism. Psychopathology refers to behaviors and problems in the MIND. To the public, the mind is still distinct from the brain, and that's why I worry about this dualism. The mind and the brain are NOT distinct. Every behavioral manifestation has an underlying biological basis, and biological states are affected and changed by your environment and your own behaviors (mind/brain blowing, yes?). So I feel like, to continue using the term "psychopathology", is to continue to perpetuate, at least to some extent, the idea that the mind and your behaviors are somehow separate from the rest of you.

And of course, if you feel your behaviors and your mind are separate from your biology, it becomes that much easier to tell someone it's "all in your head" (well, it IS, but not like you'd think), and that you just "need to have more willpower/work harder/try harder/smile/make friends". And we can all agree that that is not productive, and merely serves to condescend to the patient and belittle their very real suffering.

So me? I'm more in favor of "mental illness", "mental disorder", and other terms which speak to the underlying biology. It makes the presence of the illness real, and while it allows for the study of behavior (which is an incredibly important area of this research, you cannot know if you have success in biology until you see a corresponding change in behavior), it also makes clear the the fact of physical changes in the brain which are associated with it. And this allows us, as scientists and in the clinic, to attack the illness from two angles, changes in behavior AND changes in biology. And the more angles we have, the greater our probability of success.

6 responses so far

  • Sal says:

    Interesting. I don't have the same reaction to the term psychopathology at all. Though I'm coming from a more human centered perspective. And I just assume everyone understands that the brain and mind are the same in some sense. At least I was under the impression that the people I knew who use the term did.

  • leigh says:

    i agree, Sci. i prefer the term "pathophysiology" when examining the mechanisms behind mental disorders, because i think it helps to highlight that there are changes in brain physiology underlying the changes in behavior.

  • Chris says:

    Sci, might I ask why you think that the terms "mental illness" and "mental disorder" don't also carry the risk of implying a mind/brain dualism? It strikes me that they're just as likely as "psychopathology" to suggest such a dualism to the public, if not moreso, but I'd be interested in your thoughts.

    • scicurious says:

      A good question. I would say I prefer "mental illness", and prefer it over mental disorder, because "illness" implies a physical basis to the problem, it implies that you are PHYSICALLY ILL rather than something being 'all in your head' (though it is...just physically it's in your head).

  • I actually prefer "mental health problems" I think this caters for those who have subclinical problems.

    It also means you don't get treated as though you are "ill". The other thing is that a problem is somewhat hopeful in that there are ways of tackling problems and this does not always mean with pharmaceuticals. Whereas "illness" does tend to imply pharmaceuticals.

  • [...] However one defines them… See Christian Jarrett on What is mental iIllness?, Scicurious on What is Psychopathology?, and the Neurocritic on the new Research Domain Criteria for Classifying Mental [...]