Psychopathology is the study of mental illness and abnormal behaviours in human beings. In its very simplest explanation it has been described as "a deviation from psychological normality." But as with so many areas of psychology, practitioners do not generally agree on a definition, at least not scientifically. Psychopathology is considered more of an abstract, socially constructed theory that can be studied and treated in a number of different ways.
Abnormal behaviours commonly encountered in the study of psychopathology include childhood behaviour disorders like Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, anxiety disorders such as phobias or post-traumatic stress, depression and schizophrenia. There are also personality disorders including Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and paranoid or antisocial disorders, and ‘somatoform' conditions, in which the patient suffers pain with no physical cause. As such the study of psychopathology is of interest to a wide range of professionals including psychologists, clinical specialists such as nurses, and those working in areas of social and behavioural science.
A scientific way of looking at psychopathology is to conceive it as a statistical deviation from the norm. But any further measuring or definition of normality and abnormality in this context is impossible because the point at which a common disorder becomes a dysfunctional one is hard to establish. The question for scientists is what we mean by using the word abnormal in the first place. Being statistically or psychologically abnormal, that is, outside that curve of ‘normality' does not necessarily have to have a negative connotation or constitute a mental illness. Scientists are also weary of the interpretation of anything abnormal or outside the "norm" being dangerous or threatening. A common example is shyness, something many people experience, but only a minority will be so badly affected by it will have a major impact on their lives.
Psychopathology has been an area of interest to psychologists since the turn of the 20th century. Early pioneers in the field were Kraepelin and Bleuler, and to an extent, Freud. At the heart of the discussion about psychopathology was the attempt to establish the cause of mental illness, and whether it was physical illness or psychological experience that could be the trigger. Today, experts agree it is probably a combination of both factors. Yet the basic facets of psychopathology have intrigued medical minds for thousands of years. The Tso Chuan is a classic work of Chinese medicine written around 100 BCE. It noted and understood the relationship between body and mind (soma and psyche), explaining that an imbalance of the six basic human emotions – love, hate, pleasure, anger, sadness and happiness – could result in physical sickness or "diseases of the mind and delusions."
Psychopathology is described by The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as "…a clinically significant behavioral or psychological syndrome or pattern that occurs in an individual and that is associated with present distress (e.g., a painful symptom) or disability (i.e., impairment in one or more important areas of functioning) or with a significantly increased risk of suffering death, pain, disability, or an important loss of freedom. …Whatever its original cause, it must currently be considered a manifestation of a behavioral, psychological, or biological dysfunction in the individual."
A famous historical example of a sufferer of psychopathological symptoms was the Russian czar Peter the Great (1682-1725). He suffered from a number of psychological complaints, including nightmares and insomnia, as well as physical illnesses, that were said to have been able to be traced back to him witnessing a bloody invasion of the palace he lived in as a child.
Today, there are five identified paradigms of psychopathology: Biological (the disorder as a brain malfunction); learning (the theory that abnormal behavior is learned); cognitive, (it is a result of dysfunctional thinking); psychoanalytic (it is a manifestation of an unresolved issue from childhood); and humanist/ existential (a matter of the patient's free will). Those who work in the field will generally specialize in one of these areas.
However some practitioners think a straightforward definition of the work of psychopathology is so subjective as to be impossible. In their book Psychology: A Very Short Introduction, Gillian Butler and Freda McManus quantify the problem thus: "Extreme forms of abnormal behavior are easy to recognize, but the exact line of demarcation between what is normal and what is not is much less clear. For example, it is normal to feel sad after losing someone close to you, but how intensely and for how long? Where does normal grief end and abnormal grief or clinical depression begin?"