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While in recent years mental health research has been gradually navigating towards a “biopsychosocial” approach towards explaining the possible cause of mental health problems, for a significant length of time, a “biomedical” approach was favoured.

The biomedical approach follows the idea that mental disorders are brain diseases and that any medication-based treatment targets the abnormalities involved in the brain.

Essentially, this theory suggests that chemical imbalances are the reason for mental health problems and that medication can address this balance.

There is still significant backing for this approach by some researchers and it remains one of the most common explanations of the causes of mental health problems.

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Mental Illness seen as a “brain disease”

As we mentioned, the biomedical approach dominated research towards mental health for decades, with treatments geared towards this ideology. Mental illness was seen as a disease of the brain.

The abnormalities we mention were supposedly related to the chemicals in the brain e.g. serotonin, dopamine and noradrenaline, which are known as neurotransmitters. The levels of the neurotransmitters are supposedly unbalanced and therefore cause symptoms to appear.

The role of medications like antidepressants and antipsychotics are supposedly to regulate and normalise the levels of these chemicals. In many cases, this does seem to work.

Clearly, these medications are not a one-size fits all approach, with many finding that medication offers little to no relief from symptoms. This has cast doubt on the validity of this approach towards the causes of mental health.

This model essentially treats mental illness in a similar way to a physical condition. Like a broken leg has a physical cause, the biomedical approach to mental health suggests that mental illness is caused by a physical problem.

Is the Biomedical approach accurate?

In recent years, there has been increased skepticism towards the validity of the biomedical approach. While in theory the model makes sense, it has been criticised for being too simplistic.

By no means all, but a sizeable amount of people that suffer from a mental health condition will often suggest environmental or social factors have played a part in the onset of the illness.

This may include a traumatic experience, difficult relationship or self-esteem worries. The biomedical approach would propose that these different factors could cause a physical abnormality in the brain.

But its over-reliance on biological factors doesn’t quite take into consideration the range of other factors that can contribute to the onset of mental illness. An approach that does do this however is the biopsychosocial model.

The Biopsychosocial Model

The Biopsychosocial model

As mentioned earlier, in recent years a biopsychosocial model has become a popular approach to explain the causes behind mental illness. As shown in the above graphic, this approach involves the combination of three distinct areas.

These areas are biological factors e.g. genetics, social factors e.g. friends and family and psychological factors e.g. self esteem, IQ. This approach was spearheaded by George L. Engel and Jon Romano [1].

The biopsychosocial approach suggests that elements from each of the three factors may combine to trigger mental illness. So this model looks at the wider picture of an individual’s life, rather than focusing on the idea that mental illness is merely a brain disease.

We should state that the biopsychosocial approach has also attracted criticism, with many doubting its validity. We have a full article on the model with more information, which you can access here.


Trying to find out the cause behind mental health problems is a difficult subject. It has caused significant debate and despite the vast strides made in neurology in recent years, we are no nearer to an answer for the cause to mental health problems.

The Biomedical approach is an interesting model and remains one of the theories at the forefront of explaining the reasons for mental health conditions. This reasoning does tie in with common explanations regarding how medications like antidepressants work.

But while speculating about the cause of mental health problems is important, focusing on the treatment available to someone struggling with mental illness is arguably of greater importance.


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If you are struggling with your mental health, help is available. With the right support and treatment, you can make a recovery. For information on helplines, or if you are in a state of crisis, please visit our crisis page by clicking on the relevant link for your geographical location (United Kingdom), (United States), (International). You can also see how to get mental health treatment and the process involved by clicking this link.


[1] Engel, G. L., & Romano, J, (1997). The need for a new medical model: a challenge for biomedicine. Science. 196(1). p129-136.