The Study of Abnormal Psychology


Abnormal psychology has a broader range than the average layperson is aware of. It concerns itself with a variety of mental and emotional disorders including, but not limited to, depression, bi-polar disorder, eating disorders, alcoholism, drug abuse, sexual addictions, deviations and abuse, obsessive compulsive disorders, and schizophrenia. It differs from other types of psychology, in that it studies disorders as they exist outside normal social constructs; these result in the temporary absence, or complete loss of, one's ability to live a happy, balanced, and fulfilling life. There are many paths one may take in the pursuit of an education in Abnormal Psychology. This article will provide information about these topics, so that you have a clear idea of what abnormal psychology is, how it differs from other branches in the field, and what educational options are open to those who have an interest in devoting their lives to helping those who suffer from mental illness.

Definition of the Term

The Merriam Webster Dictionary defines Abnormal Psychology as follows:

a branch of psychology concerned with mental and emotional disorders (as neuroses, psychoses, and mental retardation), and with certain incompletely understood normal phenomena (as dreams and hypnosis).

Abnormal Psychology can further be defined as:

a) Any mental or emotional disorder that causes the patient (or others affected by the patient), to lose, or never obtain, a fulfilling, productive life.

b) Any behavior that occurs infrequently and, therefore, deviates, from statistical norms of appropriate social behavior.

c) Any subjectively described feelings of mental discomfort, anxiety, or depression by an individual -- rather than any behavior he or she may display.

While many people associate abnormal psychology with severe mental illness, that is not the case. While serial killers, pedophiles and those with multiple personalities certainly do exist, they are at the extreme of the spectrum of abnormal disorders of the mind and emotions. In reality, most human beings will suffer from some type of mental illness in their lifetime. Whether it is a bout of serious depression from the loss of a loved one, a difficult divorce, the loss of a job or threatened financial security, or simply intense anxiety that diminishes one's ability to function healthfully, most people will encounter a mental and/or emotional disorder. Reoccurring anxiety can be brought about by something as seemingly minor as being the victim of a theft, to something more catastrophic, such as the September 11th terrorist attacks. Extremely difficult life experiences, and traumatic events, often trigger both major and minor abnormal mental and emotional disorders. To complicate things further, some people are simply born with, or inherit, a predisposition towards mental illness. To complicate the matter further still, physical problems can trigger mental illness symptoms: blows to the head, tumors, brain nerve damage, or infection are all possible physiological triggers. The extremes of mental illness offer a much greater challenge to those who diagnose and treat them, as well as those who suffer from them. However, much of the stigma attached to disorders of the mind and emotions should be alleviated by the knowledge that anyone can be struck with mental illness at any time.

Interested in learning more? Why not take an online Abnormal Psychology course?

What are the differences, and similarities, between Abnormal Psychology and other branches of psychology?

There are nearly as many specializations concerning the human mind, as there are specializations of the human body.

First, let's take a look at some of the most prevalent areas of study in psychology:

Developmental Psychology: This is concerned with studying how the human mind changes and develops throughout the various stages of life. Originally concerned only with child psychology, this branch has evolved to include studies into adolescence, maturity, middle age, and elderly psychology.

Forensic Psychology: Also known as "legal psychology," its focus is working with the judicial system. Some areas of involvement include: parole readiness, competency of criminals on trial, jury selection, inmate counseling, development of rehabilitation programs, police and parole officer training.

Industrial Psychology: This is also called Organizational Psychology or I/O Psychology. The focus of this branch is to help various commercial and non-profit businesses evaluate employees and potential employees, and to help executives achieve better employee management skills. They may also administer tests and create training programs to help a company reach its goals.

Sports Psychology: This branch deals with the emotional and mental nuances of athletes. Its original focus was researching inherent traits that appear in athletes, as opposed to non-athletes. This branch has expanded into helping athletes achieve goals, and break through roadblocks in their performance, by using imagery training, hypnosis, relaxation techniques, talk therapy, and conflict resolution training.

The above areas concern themselves mostly with understanding how the human mind acts, and reacts, in specific areas of life and work. It then seeks to assist the person, patient, or organization in achieving the highest potential, thus increasing the individual's quality of life and work. For instance, developmental psychology studies how the mind develops and changes throughout a human's lifetime; therefore, it can be used to better understand why most 3-year-olds use the word "no" repeatedly. They do so because they are seeking autonomy and becoming separate from their parents, not because they are being defiant or intentionally disobedient. This is a healthy and normal aspect of emotional and mental maturity. Parents can use this information to encourage the quality of independence in their children, rather than over-reliance, by not punishing them for asserting their individuality. Likewise, sports psychologists have come to understand that athletes have more driven personalities than non-athletes, thus it is difficult for them to relax when necessary; this, in turn, diminishes their ability to achieve life balance, and may cause injury from over-training. The very thing that makes an athlete a great competitor, may also serve to ruin their chances of success. This information has been used to assist the athlete in learning relaxation techniques so that he or she may achieve their personal and career goals.

Abnormal psychology is similar to other branches, in that it seeks to understand how the human mind works, and why it reacts to certain circumstances, and causes specific behaviors. It is also similar in that this research is primarily done so that the individual suffering from mental illness may achieve a better quality of life. However, it differs from all other branches in several ways. The starting point for the patient is below the level of healthy mental and emotional function, so the individual first needs to be bought to a level of good health before they can consider seeking higher goals of life balance and success in all areas. Further differences include the use of medication, and even surgery, to treat abnormal psychological conditions; the need for institutionalization in some cases (to safeguard the patient or others); and the need, in some cases, for intense, long-term talk psychotherapy to alleviate distress.

Educational Paths in Abnormal Psychology

Do you need a graduate degree to work in the field of Abnormal Psychology?

While jobs exist that require only an undergraduate degree, most require an advanced degree. It is possible to find entry level positions that seek individuals at the undergrad level; however, if you want to be a psychologist or psychiatrist, then you must continue your studies. Abnormal psychologists earn a PhD or PhyD in the field. This requires a four- to six-year degree, followed by a dissertation for a PhD (no dissertation for a PhyD), and an internship for either degree. If you want to be a psychiatrist, then after your BA studies are complete, you must then earn a four-year medical degree, followed by one-year internship and three years of residency.

If you are not sure what specialty you desire, or would like to learn more about the field while getting "hands-on" experience before making the huge commitment to graduate studies, there are some options. It is possible to "scope out" the field by taking a position closely related to it, and in this manner discover if abnormal psychology is something you would like to pursue further. There are also many companies that will provide tuition reimbursement to those seeking to advance their studies. These are fantastic opportunities, as they allow you to work within the area of interest while earning your degree. After your degree is earned, it is likely that you will be offered a position within the company you have been working for. Some possibilities for those with BA degrees in psychology include: drug and alcohol counseling, work in community mental health centers, psychiatric hospital intake, family and child services case worker, and academic psychology department research assistant. Generally speaking, a PhD degree will provide more abnormal psychology opportunities upon graduation than will a bachelor's degree.

Best Undergrad Degree for Abnormal Psychology

The best bachelor's degree to have before pursuing a degree in psychiatry, or a PhD degree in abnormal psychology, would be in psychology -- of course! However, Psych is not the only game in town. Those with undergraduate degrees in English, Communication, Business, Computer Science, and even Education, are all possibilities. It will be slightly more difficult for those who did not earn their undergrad degree in psychology to move to an advanced level of study in psychology, and it may require the taking of undergraduate-level basic psychology courses as prerequisites to enrolling in graduate-level classes. However, with a strong inclination, and a little hard work, those with BA or BS degrees outside of psychology can do just as well at a higher level as their Psych-degreed counterparts. If you are now, or will soon be, a student earning your undergrad degree, it is highly suggested that you either switch your major to psychology, or at the very least, take several elective courses in that major if you have decided that abnormal psychology is the field you want to enter.

Preparing for graduate studies

Many students find that the leap from high school to college is a bit harder than expected; similarly, so is the shift from undergraduate to graduate student. While in some aspects, things may be easier, as you are focusing on your particular field of interest, the work load is much heavier, and much more difficult. The expectations of what you are able to produce, in the form of papers and research, on your own are much higher. You can expect a master's degree in Psychology to take two to three full years if attending school full-time; three to five, if you are attending part-time. If you have not learned how to organize yourself efficiently, and have found this to be a problem during your BA or BS studies, you should take a course on proper organizational techniques before beginning your studies. By all means, speak with those who are already enrolled in graduate studies for psychology at your college of choice, and get a good understanding from the department staff of what will be expected of you during the process. Just as you did for your bachelor's degree, you will want to research various universities and colleges to find the curriculum that best suits your current needs and future goals. As most spots in excellent programs are limited, you must be sure to keep your GPA as high as possible, and prepare well for your Graduate Record Exam. To get into the best programs, a GPA of 3.5 or higher for your junior and senior years is required. Graduate schools do not take freshman and sophomore GPA scores into consideration, so if you slacked in your first two years, there is still hope for you to reach your goals of attending a good to excellent program! There are many fine courses available for GRE test preparation, and you should begin looking into them by your junior year of college. Consult your student advisor to get the best information in regard to the best universities for your needs.

Below is a checklist for Psychology Grad School Preparation and Application:

  • Great to excellent junior and senior GPA; 3.5 and above is ideal
  • GRE score of 1030 or better
  • Very good to excellent math skills and grades
  • Proficiency with computer technology
  • Letters of recommendation from at least three professors at your current school
  • Excellent organizational skills
  • Excellent written and verbal communication skills


Abnormal psychology is mostly concerned with disorders of the mind and emotions. It differs from other branches of psychology in that it uses medications, institutionalization and intense, long-term talk therapy to treat it. It is similar in that it seeks to increase the individual's quality of life. A PhD is not required to work around the field of abnormal psych, but must be obtained to be a psychologist. Psychiatrists are medical doctors who have continued on to obtain three additional years of psychiatric education and training.