Medical Models of Abnormality

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Medical or biological models of abnormality stem back to Greek physician Hippocrates (c. 470-c. 377 b.c.e.), who proposed that psychological disorders are caused by body-fluid imbalances. Greeks believed that the uterus could move around a woman's body, attaching itself at different places and causing the symptoms of hysteria, a disorder in which a person has physical symptoms without the usual organic causes.

The medical model gained support when people realized that some bizarre behaviors were due to brain damage or other identifiable physical causes. For example, people with scars in certain areas of the brain may have seizures. Also, people who contract the sexually transmitted disease syphilis, which is caused by microorganisms, can develop aberrant behavior ten to twenty years after the initial infection. Syphilis moves through the body and attacks different organs, sometimes the brain.

In modern times, biological researchers use research techniques to explore the brain chemistries of mentally disturbed people. They suspect that changes in the workings of neurotransmitters may contribute to many psychological disorders. For example, depression can be associated with abnormally low levels of norepinephrine and serotonin.

The medical model of abnormality is pervasive and can be seen in the language that is often used to describe mental problems. In this language, a patient is diagnosed with a mental disorder. This illness requires treatment that might include hospitalization and therapy to relieve symptoms and produce a cure.

The medical model ushered in humane treatment for people who hitherto had been persecuted as agents of the devil. Some of the advances in treatment for psychological problems include antipsychotic medication, which can reduce hallucinations and help a person with schizophrenia avoid hospitalization; lithium, which can moderate the debilitating mood extremes of bipolar disorder; antidepressants, which can relieve the chronic pain of depression; and antianxiety drugs, which can relieve the acute stress of anxiety disorders. These kinds of advances help the day-to-day lives of many people.

Also, the medical model has focused research attention on the genetic inheritance of mental illness. One way to study the genetic basis of behavior is to compare identical twins with fraternal twins. An identical twin of a schizophrenic who was adopted into an entirely different family and never even met the other twin is still twice as likely to be schizophrenic as a person identified randomly from the general population. Another way to study the genetic basis of behavior is to compare adopted children to their adoptive parents and to their biological parents. Using these types of research, scientists have implicated heredity in a number of mental disorders, including schizophrenia, depression, and alcoholism.

However, it may not be appropriate to view all psychological disorders in medical terms. Some disorders can be directly tied to life experiences. Also, the medical model has promoted the idea that people who behave abnormally are not responsible for their actions. They are mentally sick, therefore not in control of themselves. Some people disagree with this notion. In The Myth of Mental Illness (1961), American psychiatrist Thomas Szasz argued that mental illness is a socially defined, relative concept that is used to cast aside people who are different. In 1987 Szasz charged psychologists, psychiatrists, and other mental health professionals with being too quick to guard society's norms and values and too slow to take care of the people who are in some way different. Further, Szasz claimed that the label "sick" invites those with problems to become passively dependent on doctors and drugs rather than relying on their own inner strengths.

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