If you’ve been in treatment for, known someone in treatment for, or have researched things about mental health and illness, you may have heard this big scary buzzword.




Well, here’s what it means, short and sweet.

No one is really sure what causes mental health problems, and no one has a single cure-all method that fixes everyone. Some people have said that it’s definitely brain chemistry. But that doesn’t explain why medication alone doesn’t work for a lot of people. If it was just a chemical imbalance, wouldn’t the pills just fix it? Some people have said it’s absolutely due to thinking errors and maladaptive behavior that can be fixed with cognitive behavioral therapy. But that doesn’t explain why some people don’t get better with just therapy, and need other treatment too. Still others insist that it’s all a social disease – bad parenting, bullying, isolation, and poverty are the causes. But that doesn’t explain why people from great homes with lots of friends and zero social concerns sometimes get sick.

The biopsychosocial approach to mental health simply says, “why not all three?” The idea is that all of these things combine in varying degrees to explain mental health and illness. Mental health conditions don’t exist in a vacuum and cannot be blamed on one single factor. I’ll illustrate this with myself.

  • Bio: Mental health problems run in my family, especially mood disorders. There’s probably something wonky about our brain chemistries. I’m also really sensitive to disruptions in my sleep schedule, and they tend to impact my mood a lot.
  • Psycho: I have a lot of thinking errors and urges to use maladaptive coping mechanisms that make my moods worse.
  • Social: I have relatively poor social skills and tend to self-isolate when I’m not doing well.

It’s all intertwined, and just like one factor alone cannot explain my mental health condition, one factor alone cannot be treated to make my mental health condition go away. Looking after only biological needs and neglecting psychological and social needs isn’t a very effective way of treating mental health conditions. This is why “just medication” doesn’t work for a lot of people. Looking after only social needs doesn’t really help either – have any of you tried to just get out and be social, hoping it would help? But it doesn’t always work, because we also need to look after our biological and psychological needs too. Recovery involves looking at the whole person, and using the biopsychosocial approach is just one way to do that. You can use it by answering these three questions every day:

  1. What am I doing to address my biological needs?
    This might involve making sure you get 8 hours of sleep, eating healthily and regularly, exercising, and taking your medicine.
  2. What am I doing to address my psychological needs?
    This might involve doing CBT or DBT exercises, journaling, or meditating.
  3. What am I doing to address my social needs?
    This might involve calling a friend, making time to be intimate with your partner, going out to a meet-up event, or even just cuddling with your pet.


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Kate Fitch

I've been with the Network since 2015, when I started as a volunteer. I've been on staff as the Communications Specialist since January 2017. I'm currently in college and pursuing a dual BA in Public Health and Public Administration. I'm most passionate about making sure that people with mental health conditions are fairly represented in the media, at policy tables, and in treatment system planning. In my spare time, I like to crochet, knit, and be the best cat mom ever.

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