Psychological Disorder Case Study Examples

ByChristian Jarrett

These ten characters have all had a huge influence on psychology and their stories continue to intrigue each new generation of students. What’s particularly fascinating is that many of their stories continue to evolve – new evidence comes to light, or new technologies are brought to bear, changing how the cases are interpreted and understood. What many of these 10 also have in common is that they speak to some of the perennial debates in psychology, about personality and identity, nature and nurture, and the links between mind and body.

Phineas Gage
One day in 1848 in Central Vermont, Phineas Gage was tamping explosives into the ground to prepare the way for a new railway line when he had a terrible accident. The detonation went off prematurely, and his tamping iron shot into his face, through his brain, and out the top of his head. Remarkably Gage survived, although his friends and family reportedly felt he was changed so profoundly (becoming listless and aggressive) that “he was no longer Gage.” There the story used to rest – a classic example of frontal brain damage affecting personality. However, recent years have seen a drastic reevaluation of Gage’s story in light of new evidence. It’s now believed that he underwent significant rehabilitation and in fact began work as a horse carriage driver in Chile. A simulation of his injuries suggested much of his right frontal cortex was likely spared, and photographic evidence has been unearthed showing a post-accident dapper Gage. Not that you’ll find this revised account in many psychology textbooks: a recent analysis showed that few of them have kept up to date with the new evidence.

Find out more: Using brain imaging to reevaluate psychology’s three most famous cases
Neuroscience still haunted by Phineas Gage
Phineas Gage – Unravelling the Myth
Looking back: Blasts from the past
Coverage of Phineas Gage in the book Great Myths of the Brain

H.M.
Henry Gustav Molaison (known for years as H.M. in the literature to protect his privacy), who died in 2008, developed severe amnesia at age 27 after undergoing brain surgery as a form of treatment for the epilepsy he’d suffered since childhood. He was subsequently the focus of study by over 100 psychologists and neuroscientists and he’s been mentioned in over 12,000 journal articles! Molaison’s surgery involved the removal of large parts of the hippocampus on both sides of his brain and the result was that he was almost entirely unable to store any new information in long-term memory (there were some exceptions – for example, after 1963 he was aware that a US president had been assassinated in Dallas). The extremity of Molaison’s deficits was a surprise to experts of the day because many of them believed that memory was distributed throughout the cerebral cortex. Today, Molaison’s legacy lives on: his brain was carefully sliced and preserved and turned into a 3D digital atlas and his life story is reportedly due to be turned into a feature film based on the book researcher Suzanne Corkin wrote about him: Permanent Present Tense, The Man With No Memory and What He Taught The World.

Find out more: Using brain imaging to reevaluate psychology’s three most famous cases
Henry Molaison: the amnesiac we’ll never forget
Understanding amnesia – Is it time to forget HM?

Leborgne’s brain is housed at
the Musée Dupuytren museum in Paris

Victor Leborgne (nickname “Tan”)
The fact that, in most people, language function is served predominantly by the left frontal cortex has today almost become common knowledge, at least among psych students. However, back in the early nineteenth century, the consensus view was that language function (like memory, see entry for H.M.) was distributed through the brain. An eighteenth century patient who helped change that was Victor Leborgne, a Frenchman who was nicknamed “Tan” because that was the only sound he could utter (besides the expletive phrase “sacre nom de Dieu”). In 1861, aged 51, Leborgne was referred to the renowned neurologist Paul Broca, but died soon after. Broca examined Leborgne’s brain and noticed a lesion in his left frontal lobe – a segment of tissue now known as Broca’s area. Given Leborgne’s impaired speech but intact comprehension, Broca concluded that this area of the brain was responsible for speech production and he set about persuading his peers of this fact – now recognised as a key moment in psychology’s history. For decades little was known about Leborgne, besides his important contribution to science. However, in a paper published in 2013, Cezary Domanski at Maria Curie-Sklodowska University in Poland uncovered new biographical details, including the possibility that Leborgne muttered the word “Tan” because his birthplace of Moret, home to several tanneries.

Find out more: Glimpsed at last – the life of neuropsychology’s most important patient
Using brain imaging to reevaluate psychology’s three most famous cases

Wild Boy of Aveyron
The “Wild boy of Aveyron” – named Victor by the physician Jean-Marc Itard – was found emerging from Aveyron forest in South West France in 1800, aged 11 or 12, where’s it’s thought he had been living in the wild for several years. For psychologists and philosophers, Victor became a kind of “natural experiment” into the question of nature and nurture. How would he be affected by the lack of human input early in his life? Those who hoped Victor would support the notion of the “noble savage” uncorrupted by modern civilisation were largely disappointed: the boy was dirty and dishevelled, defecated where he stood and apparently motivated largely by hunger. Victor acquired celebrity status after he was transported to Paris and Itard began a mission to teach and socialise the “feral child”. This programme met with mixed success: Victor never learned to speak fluently, but he dressed, learned civil toilet habits, could write a few letters and acquired some very basic language comprehension. Autism expert Uta Frith believes Victor may have been abandoned because he was autistic, but she acknowledges we will never know the truth of his background. Victor’s story inspired the 2004 novel The Wild Boy and was dramatised in the 1970 French film The Wild Child.

Find out more: Case Study: The Wild Boy of Aveyron (BBC Radio 4 documentary).

Kim Peek
Nicknamed ‘Kim-puter’ by his friends, Peek who died in 2010 aged 58, was the inspiration for Dustin Hoffman’s autistic savant character in the multi-Oscar-winning film Rain Man. Before that movie, which was released in 1988, few people had heard of autism, so Peek via the film can be credited with helping to raise the profile of the condition. Arguably though, the film also helped spread the popular misconception that giftedness is a hallmark of autism (in one notable scene, Hoffman’s character deduces in an instant the precise number of cocktail sticks – 246 – that a waitress drops on the floor). Peek himself was actually a non-autistic savant, born with brain abnormalities including a malformed cerebellum and an absent corpus callosum (the massive bundle of tissue that usually connects the two hemispheres). His savant skills were astonishing and included calendar calculation, as well as an encyclopaedic knowledge of history, literature, classical music, US zip codes and travel routes. It was estimated that he read more than 12,000 books in his life time, all of them committed to flawless memory. Although outgoing and sociable, Peek had coordination problems and struggled with abstract or conceptual thinking.

Find out more: New York Times Obit for Kim Peek.
Autism – myth and reality
Calendar calculating savants with autism – how do they do it?
I Am a Calendar Calculator

Image: Wikipedia

Anna O.
“Anna O.” is the pseudonym for Bertha Pappenheim, a pioneering German Jewish feminist and social worker who died in 1936 aged 77. As Anna O. she is known as one of the first ever patients to undergo psychoanalysis and her case inspired much of Freud’s thinking on mental illness. Pappenheim first came to the attention of another psychoanalyst, Joseph Breuer, in 1880 when he was called to her house in Vienna where she was lying in bed, almost entirely paralysed. Her other symptoms include hallucinations, personality changes and rambling speech, but doctors could find no physical cause. For 18 months, Breuer visited her almost daily and talked to her about her thoughts and feelings, including her grief for her father, and the more she talked, the more her symptoms seemed to fade – this was apparently one of the first ever instances of psychoanalysis or “the talking cure”, although the degree of Breuer’s success has been disputed and some historians allege that Pappenheim did have an organic illness, such as epilepsy. Although Freud never met Pappenheim, he wrote about her case, including the notion that she had a hysterical pregnancy, although this too is disputed. The latter part of Pappenheim’s life in Germany post 1888 is as remarkable as her time as Anna O. She became a prolific writer and social pioneer, including authoring stories, plays, and translating seminal texts, and she founded social clubs for Jewish women, worked in orphanages and founded the German Federation of Jewish Women.

Find out more: Freud’s Anna O. Social work’s Bertha Pappenheim [pdf document]
A Dangerous Method is a feature film about another influential patient of psychoanalysis, Sabina Spielrein, who subsequently became a psychoanalyst herself.

Image: Wikipedia

Kitty Genovese
Sadly, it is not really Kitty Genovese the person who has become one of psychology’s classic case studies, but rather the terrible fate that befell her. In 1964 in New York, Genovese was returning home from her job as a bar maid when she was attacked and eventually murdered by Winston Mosely. What made this tragedy so influential to psychology was that it inspired research into what became known as the Bystander Phenomenon – the now well-established finding that our sense of individual responsibility is diluted by the presence of other people. According to folklore, 38 people watched Genovese’s demise yet not one of them did anything to help, apparently a terrible real life instance of the Bystander Effect. However, the story doesn’t end there because historians have since established the reality was much more complicated – at least two people did try to summon help, and actually there was only one witness the second and fatal attack. While the main principle of the Bystander Effect has stood the test of time, modern psychology’s understanding of the way it works has become a lot more nuanced. For example, there’s evidence that in some situations people are more likely to act when they’re part of a larger group, such as when they and the other group members all belong to the same social category (such as all being women) as the victim.

Find out more: The truth behind the story of Kitty Genovese and the bystander effect
Foundations of sand? The lure of academic myths in psychology
37 is a short film about the Genovese murder

Little Albert

“Little Albert” was the nickname that the pioneering behaviourist psychologist John Watson gave to an 11-month-old baby, in whom, with his colleague and future wife Rosalind Rayner, he deliberately attempted to instill certain fears through a process of conditioning. The research, which was of dubious scientific quality, was conducted in 1920 and has become notorious for being so unethical (such a procedure would never be given approval in modern university settings). Interest in Little Albert has reignited in recent years as an academic quarrel has erupted over his true identity. A group led by Hall Beck at Appalachian University announced in 2011 that they thought Little Albert was actually Douglas Merritte, the son of a wet nurse at John Hopkins University where Watson and Rayner were based. According to this sad account, Little Albert was neurologically impaired, compounding the unethical nature of the Watson/Rayner research, and he died aged six of  hydrocephalus (fluid on the brain). However, this account was challenged by a different group of scholars led by Russell Powell at MacEwan University in 2014. They established that Little Albert was more likely William A Barger (recorded in his medical file as Albert Barger), the son of a different wet nurse. Earlier this year, textbook writer Richard Griggs weighed up all the evidence and concluded that the Barger story is the more credible, which would mean that Little Albert in fact died 2007 aged 87.

Find out more: Little Albert – one of the most famous research participants in psychology’s history – but who was he?
Looking back: Finding Little Albert

Chris Sizemore
Chris Costner Sizemore is one of the most famous patients to be given the controversial diagnosis of multiple personality disorder, known today as dissociative identity disorder. Sizemore’s alter egos apparently included Eve White, Eve Black, Jane and many others. By some accounts, Sizemore expressed these personalities as a coping mechanism in the face of traumas she experienced in childhood, including seeing her mother badly injured and a man sawn in half at a lumber mill. In recent years, Sizemore has described how her alter egos have been combined into one united personality for many decades, but she still sees different aspects of her past as belonging to her different personalities. For example, she has stated that her husband was married to Eve White (not her), and that Eve White is the mother of her first daughter. Her story was turned into a movie in 1957 called The Three Faces of Eve (based on a book of the same name written by her psychiatrists). Joanne Woodward won the best actress Oscar for portraying Sizemore and her various personalities in this film. Sizemore published her autobiography in 1977 called I’m Eve. In 2009, she appeared on the BBC’s Hard Talk interview show.

Find out more: the Chris Costner Sizemore Papers at Duke University. 

David Reimer
One of the most famous patients in psychology, Reimer lost his penis in a botched circumcision operation when he was just 8 months old. His parents were subsequently advised by psychologist John Money to raise Reimer as a girl, “Brenda”, and for him to undergo further surgery and hormone treatment to assist his gender reassignment. Money initially described the experiment (no one had tried anything like this before) as a huge success that appeared to support his belief in the important role of socialisation, rather than innate factors, in children’s gender identity. In fact, the reassignment was seriously problematic and Reimer’s boyishness was never far beneath the surface. When he was aged 14, Reimer was told the truth about his past and set about reversing the gender reassignment process to become male again. He later campaigned against other children with genital injuries being gender reassigned in the way that he had been. His story was turned into the book As Nature Made Him, The Boy Who Was Raised As A Girl by John Colapinto, and he is the subject of two BBC Horizon documentaries. Tragically, Reimer took his own life in 2004, aged just 38.

Find out more: What were the real reasons behind David Reimer’s suicide?
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main sources and further reading
The Rough Guide to Psychology
Great Myths of the Brain.
10 of The Most Counter-Intuitive Psychology Findings Ever Published
The 10 Most Controversial Psychology Studies Ever Published

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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At some point in your study of psychology, you may be required to write a case study. These are often used in clinical cases or in situations when lab research is not possible or practical. In undergraduate courses, these are often based on a real individual, an imagined individual, or a character from a television show, film, or book.

The specific format for a case study can vary greatly. In some instances, your case study will focus solely on the individual of interest.

Other possible requirements include citing relevant research and background information on a particular topic. Always consult with your instructor for a detailed outline of your assignment.

What Is a Case Study?

A case study is an in-depth study of one person, group, or event. Much of Freud's work and theories were developed through the use of individual case studies. Some great examples of case studies in psychology include Anna O, Phineas Gage, and Genie.

In a case study, nearly every aspect of the subject's life and history is analyzed to seek patterns and causes of behavior. The hope is that learning gained from studying one case can be generalized to many others.

Unfortunately, case studies tend to be highly subjective and it is sometimes difficult to generalize results to a larger population.

One of the greatest advantages of a case study is that it allows researchers to investigate things that are often difficult to impossible to replicate in a lab.

The case study of Genie, for example, allowed researchers to study whether language could be taught even after critical periods for language development had been missed.

In Genie's case, her horrific abuse had denied her the opportunity to learn language at critical points in her development. This is clearly not something that researchers could ethically replicate, but conducting a case study on Genie allowed researchers the chance to study otherwise impossible to reproduce phenomena.

Types

There are a few different types of case studies that psychologists and other researchers might utilize:

  • Explanatory case studies are often used to do causal investigations. In other words, researchers are interested in looking at factors that may have actually caused certain things to occur.
  • Exploratory case studies are sometimes used as a prelude to further, more in-depth research. This allows researchers to gather more information before developing their research questions and hypotheses.
  • Descriptive case studies involve starting with a descriptive theory. The subjects are then observed and the information gathered is compared to the pre-existing theory.
  • Intrinsic case studies are a type of case study in which the researcher has a personal interest in the case. Jean Piaget's observations of his own children are good examples of how an intrinsic cast study can contribute to the development of a psychological theory.
  • Collective case studies involve studying a group of individuals. Researchers might study a group of people in a certain setting or look at an entire community of people.
  • Instrumental case studies occur when the individual or group allows researchers to understand more than what is initially obvious to observers.

Methods

There are also different methods that can be used to conduct a case study:

  • Prospective case study methods are those in which an individual or group of people is observed in order to determine outcomes. For example, a group of individuals might be watched over an extended period of time to observe the progression of a particular disease.
  • Retrospective case study methods are those that involve looking at historical information. For example, researchers might start with an outcome, such as a disease, and then work their way backward to look at information about the individuals life to determine risk factors that may have contributed to the onset of the illness.

Sources of Information Used

There are a number of different sources and methods that researchers can use to gather information about an individual or group. The six major sources that have been identified by researchers are:

  1. Direct observation: This strategy involves observing the subject, often in a natural setting. While an individual observer is sometimes used, it is more common to utilize a group of observers.
  2. Interviews: One of the most important methods for gathering information in case studies. An interview can involves structured survey-type questions or more open-ended questions.
  3. Documents: Letters, newspaper articles, administrative records, etc.
  4. Archival records: Census records, survey records, name lists, etc.
  5. Physical artifacts: Tools, objects, instruments and other artifacts often observed during a direct observation of the subject.
  6. Participant observation: Involves the researcher actually serving as a participant in events and observing the actions and outcomes.

Section 1: A Case History

1. Background Information

The first section of your paper will present your client's background. Include factors such as age, gender, work, health status, family mental health history, family and social relationships, drug and alcohol history, life difficulties, goals, and coping skills and weaknesses.

2. Description of the Presenting Problem

In the next section of your case study, you will describe the problem or symptoms that the client presented with. Describe any physical, emotional, or sensory symptoms reported by the client. Thoughts, feelings, and perceptions related to the symptoms should also be noted. Any screening or diagnostic assessments that are used should also be described in detail and all scores reported.

3. Your Diagnosis

Provide your diagnosis and give the appropriate Diagnostic and Statistical Manual code. Explain how you reached your diagnosis, how the clients symptoms fit the diagnostic criteria for the disorder(s), or any possible difficulties in reaching a diagnosis.

Section 2: The Intervention

The second section of your paper will focus on the intervention used to help the client. Your instructor might require you to choose from a particular theoretical approach or ask you to summarize two or more possible treatment approaches.

Some of the possible treatment approaches you might choose to explore include:

1. Psychoanalytic Approach

Describe how a psychoanalytic therapist would view the client's problem. Provide some background on the psychoanalytic approach and cite relevant references. Explain how psychoanalytic therapy would be used to treat the client, how the client would respond to therapy, and the effectiveness of this treatment approach.

2. Cognitive-Behavioral Approach

Explain how a cognitive-behavioral therapist would approach treatment. Offer background information on cognitive-behavioral therapy and describe the treatment sessions, client response, and outcome of this type of treatment. Make note of any difficulties or successes encountered by your client during treatment.

3. Humanistic Approach

Describe a humanistic approach that could be used to treat your client, such as client-centered therapy. Provide information on the type of treatment you chose, the client's reaction to the treatment, and the end result of this approach. Explain why the treatment was successful or unsuccessful.

Tips:

  • Do not refer to the subject of your case study as "the client." Instead, use his or her name or a pseudonym.
  • Remember to use APA format when citing references.
  • Read examples of case studies to gain and idea about the style and format.

A Word From Verywell

Case studies can be a useful research tool but they need to be used wisely. In many cases, they are best utilized in situations where conducting an experiment would be difficult or impossible. They can be helpful for looking at unique situations and allow researchers to gather a great deal of information about a specific individual or group of people.

If you have been directed to write a case study for a psychology course, be sure to check with your instructor for any specific guidelines that you are required to follow.

Sources:

Gagnon, YC. The Case Study as a Research Method: A Practical Handbook. Quebec: PUQ; 2010.

Yin, RK. Case Study Research: Design and Methods. Sage Publications; 2013.

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