June 18, 2024

Vitavo Yage

Best Health Creates a Happy Life

Understanding the Biopsychosocial Model of Health

5 min read

The biopsychosocial model is an approach to understanding mental and physical health through a multi-systems lens, understanding the influence of biology, psychology, and social environment. Dr. George Engel and Dr. John Romano developed this model in the 1970s, but the concept of this has existed in medicine for centuries.

A biopsychosocial approach to healthcare understands that these systems overlap and interact to impact each individual’s well-being and risk for illness, and understanding these systems can lead to more effective treatment. It also recognizes the importance of patient self-awareness, relationships with providers in the healthcare system, and individual life context.

Dr. Akeem Marsh, MD, physician and author of Not Just Bad Kids, described the biopsychosocial model as “at its core, centering around social determinants of mental health in connection with the ‘standard’ biomedical and psychological models. One of the more common ways in which it is represented when using the model is through the four ‘Ps’ of case formulation: predisposing, precipitating, perpetuating, and protective factors.”

Learn more about how providers can use the biopsychosocial model to offer holistic care and how clients and patients can benefit from this approach.

What Are the Three Aspects of the Biopsychosocial Model?

When understanding an individual’s physical and mental health through the biopsychosocial model, we consider physiological factors such as genetics and illness pathology (biological); thoughts, emotions, and behavior (psychological); and socioeconomic components, social support, and culture (social). How do each of these components inform the model as a whole?

Biological

“Biology” refers to our genetics, physical health, and the functioning of our organ systems. Our physical well-being impacts our mental health for multiple reasons. First, our brain is an organ and can become unwell just like any other organ. Second, physical health conditions can wear on mental health. For example, chronic pain can lead to symptoms of depression.

Additionally, just like we can have genetic predisposition to a physical disability, mental health has genetic roots as well. According to Dr. Marsh, “Genetics are the most basic level by which mental health is influenced, and on some level has an impact for everyone.” In other words, “Whatever the phenotypical expression, genetics does play a role to some degree.” The expression is in turn influenced by the environment.

Psychological

Mental health is health, and one’s psychological well-being impacts both mental and physical health. Unhealthy and maladaptive moods, thoughts, and behaviors can all be symptoms of mental health conditions, and in turn can contribute to our overall health. Mental health and behavior can be cyclical; for example, an individual who self-isolates as a symptom of depression may experience increased depressive symptoms as a result of isolation.

Routine physical activity is known to promote positive mental wellness, while inadequate or excessive physical activity can contribute to different types of mental health struggles.


DR. AKEEM MARSH

Akeem Marsh, MD, board-certified child, adolescent, and adult psychiatrist

Addressing these symptoms is key in improving mental health.

Social

Dr. Marsh shares the impact of external factors on health: “The expression [of genetics] is in turn influenced by environment.” Changes in one’s environment can impact mental health, both positively and negatively. In the previous example of depression and isolation, individuals who have appropriate social support experience fewer mental health issues compared to those without this support.

An individual who is struggling with their mental health might need social support and environmental changes just as much as they need therapy or medication intervention for their symptoms.

How the Biopsychosocial Model Impacts Mental Health

Traditionally, healthcare has focused primarily on the medical and biological side of the patient’s needs, and mental health care has focused on the psychological side. While it makes logical sense to address manifesting symptoms, a holistic approach to care that aims to address the social as well as the psychological and biological contributions to illness can be more health-promoting.

Sometimes, for instance, addressing an underlying social need or environmental stressor can improve mental health more effectively than other psychological or biological treatments. This may allow for less-invasive treatments and interventions, and it can improve the individual’s well-being in a way that non-holistic models overlook.

Criticism of the Biopsychosocial Model

Although many providers support a holistic approach to care and implement the biopsychosocial model in practice, like any model it has limitations. Dr. Marsh notes that there are concerns about its evidence backing: “Some people believe that [the biopsychosocial model] is not scientific, as in it has not quite met the ‘gold standard’ of being validated through multiple randomized trials, as it is a uniquely challenging study prospect.” How can researchers study controlled variables in a model that requires holistic care that takes individual needs into account?

At the same time, the model has many strengths and can benefit patients in the healthcare and mental health systems: “It has been researched extensively and shown positive results when applied in different ways,” Dr. Marsh said.

How Healthcare Professionals Use the Biopsychosocial Model

Mental health professionals who utilize the biopsychosocial model in practice include extensive medical history, family history, genetics, and social factors in assessments in addition to psychological information.

Additionally, they use this information to ensure that all of the client’s needs are met, as many medical issues can manifest with mental health symptoms. Therapy services to treat, for example, depression caused by an under-functioning thyroid is unlikely to be effective.

When adopted appropriately, health professionals conceptualize patients that they work with in a broad context that attempts to understand and see patients as a whole person—complex human being with nuance, so much more than just a cluster of symptoms or diagnosis.

This model lets providers see the whole person beyond their presenting symptoms.

How Clients and Patients Can Use the Biopsychosocial Model

While the biopsychosocial model has its place in the healthcare and mental healthcare systems, individuals might also implement tenants of this model in their own lives. This means being aware of how environmental factors impact their mental and physical health, as well as how their genetics and medical history in turn influence behaviors, thoughts, and emotions.

It can help individuals better understand themselves as complex, whole beings as well. “I believe that [the biopsychosocial model] could enhance their self-awareness and understanding of themselves, along with broadening their personal sense of what issues or challenges may be going on with them,” says Dr. Marsh.


By Amy Marschall, PsyD

Dr. Amy Marschall is an autistic clinical psychologist with ADHD, working with children and adolescents who also identify with these neurotypes among others. She is certified in TF-CBT and telemental health.

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