Understanding Mental Health Through the Lens of the Medical/Disease, Psychological/Behavior and Social/Environmental Model

What is Mental Health? Mental Health is a complex and sensitive topic that has recently undergone certain changes in terms of how it is defined, how it is discussed, and how those who cope with mental health issues are perceived and treated. Today, debates continue over whether mental health is a result of physical (biological or brain chemistry) problems, morally corrupt behavior, and/or unfit social environments (DiNitto & McNeece , p. 148). This listicle will look at how the following models define mental illness

Medical Model

  • In this perspective, a mental illness is believed to be a result of some form of bodily dysfunction, including physiological, biochemical, or genetic causes and can therefore be treated through medically grounded procedures (Gupta &  Patel, Models of Mental Illness)


  • To “diagnose” individuals, the medical model utilizes laboratory testing, body imaging, and/or physical examinations to assess and predict how a mental illness will run its course (lecture notes 04/19/16)


  • May include the distribution of medication to treat and reduce symptoms of the identified mental disorder

Psychological/Behavior Model

  • Through this model, mental illnesses are a result of the individuals own wrong-doings, inability to follow social orders, and moral incapacitated (lecture notes 04/19/16)


  • Focuses on learned behavior, such that mental illnesses can be understood by observing stimuli and the reinforcing conditions that control it (Gupta &  Patel, Models of Mental Illness)


  • Can be a result of biased or incoherent thinking patterns. Makes a connection between thought processing and how it can lead to maladaptive emotions and behavior. Therefore to correct mental disorder, changing ones thinking processes is necessary (Gupta &  Patel, Models of Mental Illness)

Social/Environmental Model

  • Seeks to assess how ones environment and other systems influence the way in which one copes with life stressors


  • Mental disorders may be a result of chronic strains in the environment and/or negative life events that generate certain responses from those experiencing these events leading to an adaption or manifestation of the disorder (Gupta &  Patel, Models of Mental Illness)


  • Suggests that social structures impose restrictions on behavior, as surely as biological inheritance and that the effects of one’s social conditions need to be considered to explain both individual distress and how this distress might be related to larger forces (Gupta &  Patel, Models of Mental Illness)

It’s important to consider a wide variety of factors when seeking to understand others and how their experiences have shaped the way in which they interpret and respond to life events. What is mental health? Who determines what it means to be “mentally healthy”? What constitutes a mental disorder?


DiNitto, D., & McNeece, C. (2008). Social work: Issues and opportunities in a challenging profession (3rd ed.). Chicago, IL: Lyceum Books

Gupta, D. S., &  Patel, J. Models of Mental Illness [Power Point Presentation]. Retrieved from Online Presentation Website :http://www.slideshare.net/SudarshanaDasgupta/models-of-mental-health-illness

Vassello, J. (2016). Mental Health [Power Point Presentation]Retrieved from lecture notes.










Social Work and Mental Health: Working with Special Groups

By: Mindy Barnes

According to DiNitto and McNeece, “[m]ental health is the largest area of social work specialization, and social workers are the largest group of mental health practitioners in the United States (National Association of Social Workers, 2006)” (2008, p. 145). Social workers employed in the mental health field may work in a variety of different arenas, such as in hospitals, residential programs, and private practice. However, it isn’t just where they work that differs but who they work with. Below is a list of four specific consumer groups that social workers help:


#1. Children and Adolescents

One half of all mental disorders manifest by age fourteen (DiNitto & McNeece, 2008, p. 153). This fact alone would suggest that addressing the mental health needs of children and adolescents should be the primary concern of mental health professionals. Unfortunately, mental health services for children are lagging far behind those for adults. Social workers assist children of all ages, but they often try to identify those with mental illness or developmental problems as early as possible. Factors, other than biology, that increase a child’s risk for developing mental disorders include: physical, sexual, or substance abuse, running away from home, abusing others, family violence, having a caregiver or sibling who has been institutionalized or who has a felony conviction of substance abuse problem (DiNitto & McNeece, 2008, p. 153).


#2. Dual Diagnosis Consumers

Many individuals with mental health problems have co-occurring disorders, such as substance abuse and medical problems. Having co-occurring disorders makes getting the proper treatment even more difficult. According to DiNitto and McNeece, “[i]deally, treatment agencies provide integrated treatments that address SMI, substance abuse, and medical problems simultaneously, but in many states, integrated programs are in their infancy, and consumers must go from agency to agency in what is a fragmented service delivery system” (2008, p. 154). Social workers usually work as part of a professional team, which includes physicians and nurses, and often conduct home visits to better understand the clients’ biopsychosocial conditions. Treatment techniques for these individuals can include: medication, education and outreach, peer support, and behavior therapy (DiNitto & McNeece, 2008, p. 154).


#3. Homeless Individuals


Roughly 25 percent of those who are homeless have a serious mental illness, and about one half of these individuals also have co-occurring disorders (DiNitto & McNeece, 2008, p. 154). Homeless families are a rapidly growing population, and “[s]eventy-six percent of homeless children have a mother who has major depression, schizophrenia, a substance use disorder, or high distress (Hicks-Coolick, Burnside-Eaton, & Peters, 2003)” (DiNitto & McNeece, 2008, p. 155). These children also tend to show signs of mental health problems. Social workers may provide mental health services in homeless shelters, or they may be part of an assertive community treatment (ACT) team that delivers services to the homeless out on the streets.


#4. Military Personnel

Military personnel, especially those in combat, can experience mental health problems, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, and often have co-occurring disorders, such as substance abuse. Also, “[m]ilitary personnel and their families can face a pileup of stressors that puts them at risk of dysfunction, including moving often; adapting to living in other countries; episodic or long separations; and, during wartime, the fear of death or disability (Black, 1993)” (DiNitto & McNeece, 2008, p. 155). Social workers, many of whom are employed by the VA, help by addressing child abuse and IPV, and by providing mental health services and substance abuse treatment. Social workers can be, but are not required to be, military personnel themselves.


Whether you are a social worker or not, please remember that:


DiNitto, D., & McNeece, C. (2008). Social work: Issues and opportunities in a challenging profession (3rd ed.). Chicago, IL: Lyceum Books.


8 Facts About Mental Health You Wanna Know Now! -Carly Danowitz

  1. So many social workers are in mental health practice because almost half of Americans (46%), experience some form of mental illness in their life span. Some of the most common mental disorders are: mood disorders, anxiety disorders, and impulse-control disorders. (DiNitto & McNeece, 2008, p. 145)


  1. Most of the research performed within mental health has been with male subjects. However, women are more likely than men to suffer from depression. Biology cannot adequately explain this phenomenon. (DiNitto & McNeece, 2008, p. 156)


  1. One counseling approach employed by social workers is motivational interviewing, which seeks to gain the clients trust and help them move toward a more positive direction. They teach them to use empathy, develop discrepancy, support self-efficacy, and to respond differently. (DiNitto & McNeece, 2008, p. 160)


  1. Youths are a primary concern for social workers that work in the mental health realm. This is because half of mental disorders appear by age 14, and 75% by the age of 24. Even so, more mental health services are offered to adults rather than children. (DiNitto & McNeece, 2008, p. 153)


  1. Commonly, people with mental health disorders have more than one disorder. This is called comorbidity. One common disorder that is comorbid with many mental health disorders is substance use disorder. This can be applied to drugs and alcohol. (DiNitto & McNeece, 2008, p.147)


  1. 20-25% of homeless individuals have a serious mental illness. These people also have problems with employment, criminal justice system, as well as social and family relationships. They also commonly have alcohol or drug abuse problems. (DiNitto & McNeece, 2008, p.154-155)


  1. Many social workers provide case management, also called care management. This is a system in which the social worker makes sure their client has access to and obtains all the services and resources that can help them maintain their most optimal functioning. (DiNitto & McNeece, 2008, p. 158)


  1. 5-7% of adults have a serious mental illness and 5-9% of children have a serious mental illness. Social workers who work in the public mental health agencies work mainly with clients that have serious mental illnesses. (DiNitto & McNeece, 2008, p. 147)




DiNitto, D., & McNeece, C. (2008). Social work: Issues and opportunities in a challenging profession (3rd ed.). Chicago, IL: Lyceum Books.