Psychopathology: Definition, Types, and Diagnosis

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An early use of the term "psychopathology" dates back to 1913 when the book General Psychopathology was first introduced by Karl Jaspers, a German/Swiss philosopher and psychiatrist. This new framework for understanding the mental experience of individuals followed a long history of varied attempts at making meaning out of "abnormal experiences."

What Is Psychopathology?

How do we currently define psychopathology? In short, this discipline can be understood as an in-depth study of problems related to mental health. Just like pathology is the study of the nature of disease (including causes, development, and outcomes), psychopathology is the study of the same concepts within the realm of mental health (or illness).

This study of mental illness can include a long list of elements: symptoms, behaviors, causes (genetics, biology, social, psychological), course, development, categorization, treatments, strategies, and more.

In this way, psychopathology is all about exploring problems related to mental health: how to understand them, how to classify them, and how to fix them. Because of this, the topic of psychopathology extends from research to treatment and covers every step in between. The better we can understand why a mental disorder develops, the easier it will be to find effective treatments.

psychopathology professionals

Verywell / Brianna Gilmartin 

Signs of Psychopathology

Signs of psychopathology vary depending on the nature of the condition. Some of the signs that a person might be experiencing some form of psychopathology include:

  • Changes in eating habits
  • Changes in mood
  • Excessive worry, anxiety, or fear
  • Feelings of distress
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Irritability or anger
  • Low energy or feelings of fatigue
  • Sleep disruptions
  • Thoughts of self-harm or suicide
  • Trouble coping with daily life
  • Withdrawal from activities and friends

Diagnostic Systems

Professionals engaged in research and treatment of psychopathology must use systems to arrive at conclusions regarding the best course of action for treatment. These systems are used to classify what are considered mental health disorders. Currently, the most widely used systems for classifying mental illness in the United States are the following.

Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM)

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is created by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) as an assessment system for mental illness. The DSM-5-TR (Text Revisions) published in 2022 is the current edition and includes identifiable criteria that mental health professionals use to arrive at a specific diagnosis.

The criteria and list of disorders sometimes change as new research emerges. Some examples of disorders listed in the DSM-5-TR include major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, paranoid personality disorder, and social anxiety disorder.

International Classification of Diseases (ICD)

The ICD is a system similar to the DSM. Now in its eleventh version, the ICD was developed over a century ago and was taken over by the World Health Organization (WHO) when it was founded in 1948. So, how does the ICD-11 differ from the DSM-5-TR?

First, the ICD-11 is produced by a global agency (the World Health Organization), while the DSM-5-TR is produced by a national professional association (the American Psychiatric Association). The ICD-11 is approved by the World Health Assembly composed of health ministers from 193 WHO member countries.

Second, the goal of the ICD-11 is to reduce the burden of disease globally. It includes medical as well as mental health diagnoses. Third, the ICD-11 is freely available on the Internet. In contrast, the DSM must be purchased, and the American Psychiatric Association derives revenue from sales of the book and related products.

Still, the DSM-5-TR is the standard for classification among American mental health professionals and is generally used for treatment planning and insurance purposes.

Research Domain Criteria (RDoC)

Beyond these standard systems for classifying mental disorders, there also exists a burgeoning area of research and theory that moves away from the checklist format of making diagnoses. Since it's possible to have symptoms of a mental illness but not meet the criteria for an official diagnosis, studies of descriptive psychopathology hold promise for a better system of understanding.

The RDoC is a research framework initiative by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) based on translational research from areas such as neuroscience, genomics, and experimental psychology. In this way, the RDoC is involved in describing the signs and symptoms of psychopathology rather than grouping them into disorders as has been historically done with the DSM and ICD.

The RDoC is primarily aimed at planning and funding research.

Who Works In Psychopathology?

Just as the scope of psychopathology is broad-ranging from research to treatment, so too is the list of types of professionals who tend to be involved in the field. At the research level, you will find research psychologists, psychiatrists, neuroscientists, and others trying to make sense of the different manifestations of mental disorders seen in clinical practice.

At the clinical level, you will find many types of professionals attempting to apply the diagnostic systems that are in place to provide effective treatments to individuals living with psychopathology. These can include the following and more:

Identifying Psychopathology

How do psychologists and psychiatrists decide what extends beyond normal behavior to enter the territory of "psychopathology?" Psychiatric disorders can be conceptualized as referring to problems in four areas: deviance, distress, dysfunction, and danger.

For example, if you were experiencing symptoms of depression and went to see a psychiatrist, you would be assessed according to a list of symptoms (most likely those in the DSM-5-TR):

  • Deviance: This term refers to thoughts, emotions, or behaviors that deviate from what is common or at odds with what is deemed acceptable in the society. In the case of depression, you might report thoughts of guilt or worthlessness that are not common among other people.
  • Distress: This symptom refers to negative feelings either felt within a person or that result in discomfort in others around that person. In the case of depression, you might report extreme feelings of distress over sadness or guilt.
  • Dysfunction: With this symptom, professionals are looking for the inability to achieve daily functions like going to work. In the case of depression, you might report that you can't get out of bed in the morning or that daily tasks take you much longer than they should.
  • Danger: This term refers to behavior that might put you or someone else at some type of detrimental risk. In the case of depression, this could include reporting that you are having thoughts of suicide or harming yourself.

In this way, you can see that the distinction between normal versus psychopathological behavior comes down to how issues are affecting you or the people around you.

Often it is not until things come to a crisis point that a diagnosis is made when someone comes in contact with a medical or mental health professional.


There is not a single cause for psychopathology. There a number of factors that can increase the risk of mental illness, including: 

  • Biological factors, including genes and brain chemistry
  • Chronic medical conditions
  • Family members with mental illness
  • Feelings of isolation
  • Lack of social support
  • Substance or alcohol use
  • Traumatic or stressful experiences

It is also important to realize that mental health can change over time. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests that 50% of all people will be diagnosed with a mental illness at some point in their life.


Some of the different types of psychopathology include, but are not limited to:

  • Anxiety disorders
  • Bipolar disorders
  • Depressive disorders
  • Disruptive, impulse-control, and conduct disorders
  • Dissociative disorders
  • Eating disorders
  • Neurocognitive disorders
  • Neurodevelopmental disorders
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorders
  • Personality disorders
  • Schizophrenia spectrum and other psychotic disorders
  • Sleep disorders
  • Somatic symptom disorders
  • Substance-related disorders
  • Trauma- and stressor-related disorders

Dimensional vs. Categorical Definitions

It's easy to see that there has been some disagreement historically about what constitutes mental illness. At the same time, even in the current field, there is disagreement about how mental illness should best be conceptualized.

Are all of the disorders in the DSM distinct, or are there higher-order overarching factors that play a role in mental illness and that might better explain why some people are diagnosed with many illnesses (called comorbidity)?

Some research suggests that there are neuropsychological dimensions that cut across current diagnostic categories, noting the problems inherent in the "checklist" approach to mental health.

It might be misleading to group disorders as separate when there can be so much overlap between people diagnosed with different disorders (and so many dissimilarities among people diagnosed with the same disorder).

Hopefully, in the future, better diagnostic systems will be developed that will take all these issues in the field of psychopathology into account.

History of the Study of Mental Illness

We've come a long way since the earliest beginnings of trying to make sense of mental illness. Although individuals with mental health issues still face stigma and a lack of understanding, things were very different in the past.

Hippocrates, the 4th century BC Greek physician, rejected the notion of evil spirits and argued instead that mental illness was a disease of the brain relating to imbalances of bodily humors, or chemicals in the body fluids. Around the same time, the philosopher Plato argued that mental distress involved issues of virtue, morality, and the soul.

If you lived in the 16th century with a mental health problem, chances are you would not have been treated very well. At that time, mental illness was often viewed from a religious or superstitious point of view. Accordingly, it was assumed that people demonstrating strange behavior must have been overtaken by evil spirits or demons. The cure? You might have been tortured to bring you back to sanity. If that didn't work? Execution.

Later, in the 19th century, interest surged in the role of childhood and trauma in the development of mental illness. Following on the heels of this era, Sigmund Freud introduced talk therapy to deal with these unresolved childhood issues.

As of the present day, our understanding of mental illness has broadened, and so, thankfully, have the available treatments.

A Word From Verywell

Are we any closer to an appropriate understanding of psychopathology? That remains to be debated. However, we've certainly moved forward toward a program of research that holds promise for characterizing psychopathology in increasingly helpful ways. 

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By Arlin Cuncic, MA
Arlin Cuncic, MA, is the author of "Therapy in Focus: What to Expect from CBT for Social Anxiety Disorder" and "7 Weeks to Reduce Anxiety." She has a Master's degree in psychology.