February is Canada’s National Psychology Month: Here’s How Far We’ve Come

One of the great drivers of human progress is our incessant need for reason.  Not content that lightning flashed across the heavens just because it did, our early ancestors crafted great myths of angry gods.

We looked inward too, developing philosophy that explained why we were here and how we should be. When our bodies exhibited symptoms of sickness or abnormality, early physicians pointed to imbalances in the medical humors as the culprit.

We’ve come a long way – we know that electrical charges, not deities cause lightning. Our fascination in what the night sky held eventually carried us over the divide and onto the moon.  In other quests, like medicine, we’ve also progressed nobly, including on our conceptions of mental health and disorder.

Thankfully, we’re no longer using magic spells to ward off ailments of the mind, caused by evil spirits – for the most part at least. Today, we count on the twin scientific fields of psychiatry and psychology for leading the way on studying and solving mental illness and behavioural issues.

In Canada, February is National Psychology Month. It’s a time to celebrate the contributions of psychologists and how the profession is helping make the world a better place, through research and practice. In this blog, we’ll outline a brief history of psychology and what a modern-day psychologist is and what they do.

Brief History of Early Psychology

As we touched on above, mental illness was blamed on supernatural elements for much of human history; however, some early Greek physicians like Hippocrates, considered the “Father of Medicine”, pointed to physical origins and worked to categorize mental illnesses. Similarly, the association of physical and social factors impacting mental health was being reasoned in other ancient civilizations.

Fast forward to the Enlightenment in Europe, the “Age of Reason”. A note: while there were advancements in understanding in the period between across many civilizations, in the European context, the theologically-oriented “Middle Ages” put greater value on religious justification than scientific rationalization. German philosophers like Christian Wolff and Immanuel Kant popularized the discussion of psychology, with the former identifying it as its own field of science.

As the scientific method and the need to explain phenomena surged across the continent, the field of experimental psychology – the branch concerned with the investigation behind basic processes like learning, memory and cognition –  was being born. While there were some missteps, like the inaccurate and racially-stained phrenology, the realization of experimental psychology can be attributed to Wilhem Wundt, considered the “Father of Psychology”, who founded the Institute for Experimental Psychology at the University of Leipzig in Germany in 1879. Wundt would define psychology as “the investigation of conscious processes in the modes of connection peculiar to them”.

From there and from many of Wundt’s students, institutes and laboratories dedicated to the study of psychology would spring up across the world, like G Stanley Hall, the first American to earn a Ph.D. in psychology, who would open up the first U.S. lab at John Hopkins University.

Other branches, like psychoanalysis, which counted the well-known Sigmund Freud among its ranks, also furthered the broader field. Psychology began to become a core part of medical and academic curriculums and be adapted into many other disciplines, including military, political and sociological thought.

That’s all for our brief overview – thousands more words could be said on the subject. If you’re interested in learning more, check out this list of famous theorists that advanced the field of psychology.

Psychology Today

Psychology has come a long away in more than a century of formal scientific research and practice. You might be surprised to learn that today, there are a multitude of subspecialty practices, from everything from developmental psychology focused on children to forensic psychologists, focused on criminality. Ultimately, a psychologist furthers their profession by either expanding what is known through research and/or by providing service to those in need.

In many countries, including Canada, psychology is a licensed profession through a regulatory body. Given the academically-intensive nature of the career, a significant amount of schooling is required – most psychologists require a master’s and/or doctoral degree in psychology to be accredited.

There’s often a little confusion between psychologists and psychiatrists. The key difference is that psychiatrists are medical doctors and are therefore licensed to prescribe medication. However, there are many synergies between the programmes and methods of psychologists and psychiatrists. If you’re trying to decide whether you should see a psychologist or a psychiatrist, you might want to speak to your primary care physician first to get guidance on what may be the best approach for your needs.

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