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What is Depression if not a Mental Illness?

The Bio-Psycho-Social Model Continued…

The first component of the model is biology, which includes acknowledging both the biochemistry makeup of the brain, as well as its inherited genes. While gene research hasn’t resulted in any treatments to-date, influencing the neurochemistry of the brain has been the cornerstone of modern psychiatric medications. When properly prescribed by a knowledgeable mental health professional – such as a psychiatrist – these medications are often an important treatment component for many mental disorders, such as depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

The second component of the model is psychological, which includes things like a person’s personality and how they were raised to deal with stress and their emotions. This component is often just as important as medications, because while medications are great at helping a person out with symptoms of a disorder, they don’t address our own personal coping skills or ways we handle stress. While there may be no single incident that brings about a depressive episode, for instance, a lot of “minor” issues could easily come together to cause depression. Things like psychotherapy help people understand how to enhance their existing coping skills and learn better ways to express emotions.

The third and final component of the model is social, which includes things like our relationships with a significant other, our friends, and even our co-workers. We learn how to socially interact with others as we grow up, through interactions with our friends and family. Sometimes our ways of interacting and communicating with others isn’t clear, leading to problems in life, and in the worst case, social isolation. Again, psychotherapy is a treatment method that helps a person learn to understand how they interact with others, and then find ways to help the person become more successful in those interactions.

Why Does It Matter What Depression is Called?

What we call something is important because people tend to put as much effort into changing something as they’re told it needs. If a person is told that it’s a brain chemical problem, they’ll more easily and readily believe it when the physician says, “Here, take this pill and that should make things better.” And this is exactly what millions of Americans do every year, to devastating effect – most of them don’t feel any better.

If, however, people understand that mental disorders like bipolar disorder, anxiety, panic attacks, and such are complex, biopsychosocial problems, they will be more likely to approach the treatment of these problems more seriously and with greater effort. Psychiatric medications are often an important component of treatment of many disorders, but in most cases, they are not enough. To simply be prescribed an antidepressant or anti-anxiety medication without additional treatment options, such as psychotherapy, is to be getting one-third to one-half of the acceptable treatment for these disorders.

If changing a mental disorder were as simple as taking a psychiatric medication, the practice of psychotherapy would already be out of business (and large government research studies such as the STAR*D trial would show similar results). The research, however, shows that these are complex disorders that usually have no single cause and therefore also have no single treatment.

Understanding this complexity before you seek treatment will help you when your psychiatrist wants to try a number of different medications to see which one works best for you, or when the doctor recommends psychotherapy in addition to medication for treatment. This is to help you feel better, sooner, reducing your time in pain or confusion.

What is Depression if not a Mental Illness?

John M. Grohol, Psy.D.

Dr. John Grohol is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of Psych Central. He is an author, researcher, and expert in mental health online, and has been writing about online behavior, mental health and psychology issues since 1995. Dr. Grohol has a Master's degree and doctorate in clinical psychology from Nova Southeastern University. Dr. Grohol sits on the editorial board of the journal Computers in Human Behavior and is a founding board member of the Society for Participatory Medicine. You can learn more about Dr. John Grohol here.

APA Reference
Grohol, J. (2018). What is Depression if not a Mental Illness?. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 2, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.