Mental Health Theories

Healthcare Law & Ethics
April 19, 2024
Designing Health Care System
April 19, 2024
Show all

Mental Health Theories


Unlike the days of yore, the contemporary society displays a significant increase in the number of people affected by mental illnesses. Many factors contribute to these worrying statistics although it is also fortunate that more treatments continue to come and help in the alleviation of suffering that might result from psychological illnesses. The 20th century was a treasure chest of theories that shed light on a considerable number of issues that enabled psychologists then and also in recent years to devise methods that treated these disorders. This paper aims at exploring two behavioral theories by Ivan Pavlov and B.F. Skinner.

Ivan Pavlov was a Russian physiologist born in 1849, he graduated from Imperial Medical Academy and grew to be one of the most respected individuals in his profession. In the year 1904, he was able to land the Nobel Prize, due to his many contributions to digestion and physiology in general (Schweitzer, 2018). Ivan stumbled upon the discovery of classical conditioning while in his lab working with dogs to better understand the relationship between feeding and salivating (Mcleod, 2018). Conditioning refers to the connecting of natural and environmental stimuli and using them to elicit a response in a bid to affect a behavior both positively and negatively (Varcarolis, 2016). Pavlov used this method to associate specific sounds such as that of bells with food and realized that the dogs responded in anticipation of the meal when he rang these bells. Other scientists in the latter years, developed this concept and were able to apply it on human beings in the training of new behaviors within them.

B.F. Skinner’s theory, on the other hand, involved the positive and negative reinforcement of behaviors to strengthen them or extinguish, depending on the aim of the experiment. B.F. Skinner, born in 1904, was an author and reputable psychologist who spent most of his life studying behavior. At first, he wanted to be a writer but later on changed his path and applied to Harvard and pursued psychology. His behavioral theory primary focused on operant conditioning, which is the use of responses, either neutral, punishers or reinforcers, to determine if a subject will keep a specific behavior or not (Varcarolis, 2016). As the name suggests, punishers aimed at ensuring that a particular conduct’s probability for repetition is low, while neutral operant had zero effect. He used rats in his ‘skinner’ box and demonstrated how rewards could push organisms into developing and repeating a specific behavior, and how punishment or consequences could significantly decrease the probability of a body repeating conduct. Operant conditioning is applicable in many areas such as schools, prisons and psychiatric hospitals where these institutions shape behavior, by reinforcing positive ones and shunning against negative ones.

Although the two theories demonstrate a lot of difference in their overall procedures and structures, they also share some commonalities. Both concepts have an undoubted aim, to promote the learning of behavioral patterns through conditioning. However, Pavlov’s principles follow Classical Conditioning while Skinner’s theory focuses on Operant Conditioning. Additionally, both models are scientific and have a specific focus on behaviors (Mcleod, 2018).

Ivan’s Classical conditioning remains pivotal in the linking of natural and environmental stimuli to produce desired responses. Similar to Watson’s Little Albert project, the concept is applicable in reinforcing patient relaxation in medical institutions. Nurses might benefit from this since mentally ill individuals are mostly fearful of environments with doctors and nurses, and also with the smell of drugs. However, there remains one shortcoming of the theory. More often than not, individuals show a lack of control over the behaviors they learn as the conditioned reactions do not leave room for free will (Mcleod, 2018). Skinner’s Operant Conditioning, on the other hand, offers a lot of understanding to the nursing practice by explaining addictions in patients and the treatment of patients in psychiatric institutions through the principles of token economy. However, one significant shortcoming of the concept is that it does not consider the purpose of inherited aspects of learning.


The two behavioral theories by Ivan and Skinner are evidence that the human mind is understandable. Therefore, professionals can treat individuals with mental disorders and help them get better with the use of these models. Although operant conditioning, as forwarded by B.F. Skinner enjoys more applications than Pavlov’s Classical conditioning, both concepts continue to provide practical solutions, especially regarding mental health.











Mcleod, S. (2018). Classical Conditioning | Simply Psychology. Retrieved from

Mcleod, S. (2018). B.F. Skinner | Operant Conditioning | Simply Psychology. Retrieved from

Schweitzer, K. (2018). Ivan Pavlov and His Theory of Classical Conditioning. Retrieved from

Varcarolis, E. M. (2016). Essentials of Psychiatric Mental Health Nursing-E-Book: A Communication Approach to Evidence-Based Care. Elsevier Health Sciences.