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Professionals in many sub-disciplines of psychological science and psychology deal primarily with the study of abnormal psychology and the symptoms, causes, and treatment of major mental and behavioral disorders. These disorders can range from various forms of depression to personality disorders, anxiety disorders, psychotic disorders, developmental disorders, and many more. And although by definition these disorders are abnormal, researchers have found them to be surprisingly common.

The study of abnormal psychology is so integral to the psychological sciences that it has become a fundamental part of degree programs such as the Northern Kentucky University (NKU) online Bachelor of Arts (BA) in Psychology. An in-depth understanding of this division of psychology is necessary for those wishing to be effective in a professional role in the psychological sciences.

How Is Abnormal Psychology Defined?

There are many ways psychologists define “abnormal psychology.” But, at its root, the term refers to the study of behaviors and mental illnesses that are unusual and atypical — out of the societal norm. In addition, abnormal psychology deals primarily with major mental and behavioral disorders, or conditions and illnesses that detract from an individual’s mental, emotional, and behavioral health, negatively affecting or limiting their life experience. These disorders may also be defined by or include the way an individual’s mental or behavioral conditions might negatively affect those in their immediate social environment or society at large.

What Are Some Mental and Behavioral Disorders That Abnormal Psychology Focuses On?

Abnormal psychology focuses on many different types of disorders as the field is broad in scope. Mood disorders such as major depression, bipolar disorder and dysthymia are among the most commonly diagnosed, along with anxiety disorders like generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, phobias and the less common obsessive compulsive disorder. Eating disorders such as bulimia nervosa and anorexia nervosa are also fairly common in certain populations.

Less common are the more atypical dissociative, psychotic and personality disorders such as schizophrenia, narcissistic disorder, and borderline personality disorder. Major developmental disorders like autism and dyslexia also fall under abnormal psychology.

What Causes These Disorders?

There is a lot of debate over the causes of these disorders — biological versus environmental, cognitive versus behavioral conditioning and coping, induced by individual experience versus larger social constructs and societal norms, etc. But most consider abnormal mental and behavioral disorders as caused by a combination of different factors. And of course the root of disorders varies depending on the disorder, as all are extremely different.

What Treatments Are Used to Address These Disorders?

Clinical and medical treatments also vary according to the specific needs of each individual and their condition and behaviors. Cognitive and behavioral therapy is widely used to address mood disorders, anxiety disorders and personality disorders, along with antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications where appropriate and effective. Antipsychotic medications are often combined with various forms of therapy to treat psychotic disorders as well as personality disorders and forms of depression. Treatments for mental disorders may also include other forms of therapy from various models such as psychodynamic psychotherapy and humanistic counseling.

What Is Involved in the Study of Abnormal Psychology and Its Application in the Professional Context?

Abnormal psychology is involved with all aspects of psychology, from research to practice. Psychological scientists use the scientific method of experimental research to learn about the causes and symptoms of various abnormal disorders as well as the effectiveness of potential treatments (cognitive, behavioral or medical). These scientists use the results of their experiments, the data and information gathered, to form theories, build on or revise existing ones, and develop strategies for the application of their research findings and theories.

Medical doctors and clinical professionals such as therapists and counselors apply these findings, theories and strategies to their work in the accurate diagnosis of disorders as well as the design of effective, evidence-based treatment plans and therapeutic strategies. At times, psychological scientists also use data from and evaluation of various clinical treatment programs in field and natural experiments for their research.

And, in the classroom, educators such as the faculty of NKU’s BA in Psychological Science program base their teaching on the entirety of current abnormal psychology research and theory as well as best practices in the diagnosis and treatment of disorders.

Clearly, the study of abnormal psychology is an essential part of modern psychology. Whether it be experimental research, clinical behavioral and cognitive therapy, or medication-based treatment, most psychological work concerns abnormal psychology.

The overall purpose of psychology and the psychological sciences could be described as such: To better the mental and behavioral health of individuals and groups of people, leading to greater societal health and advancing human welfare in general. As those with major mental and behavioral disorders perhaps need the most assistance, help, or guidance in order to live a happy, well-adjusted, “normal” life, abnormal psychology’s prominent role in the psychological sciences as a whole makes perfect sense.

Learn more about the NKU online BA in Psychology program.


SimplyPsychology: Abnormal Psychology

Chron: About Careers in Abnormal Psychology

Psychology Today: The 10 Personality Disorders

National Institute of Mental Health: National Survey Tracks Rates of Common Mental Disorders Among American Youth

Quizlet: Abnormal Psychology Disorders

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