As Rebecca Roache points out, we need to apply psychosocial concepts to understand mental illness, which is contingent on the person having certain sorts of subjective experience. In this way it differs from physical illness. Psychiatric disorders do not stand or fall with the presence or absence of biological pathology, whereas physical diseases do. Psychological or behavioural considerations in fact cannot be eliminated in characterising mental disorders. Rebecca Roache suggests we should therefore be “cautious in hoping for biological characterizations of mental illness”. I would go further in suggesting it is a mistake to do so (see eg. previous post). At least Rebecca Roache agrees that “it is unrealistic to hope that a purely biological account of mental disorder is possible”.
As far as the biopsychosocial model is concerned, Rebecca Roache concludes, “Psychological and social explanations are not eliminable in favour of (that is, reducible to) biological ones, largely because of the way that mental illnesses are conceived and diagnosed.” I think this is the message that Engel was trying to convey in promoting his biopsychosocial model. The problem is that this meaning has been lost in eclectic accounts of what ‘biopsychosocial’ means (see eg. previous post).
As Rebecca Roache says in her other chapter in the book, this eclecticism “often involves little more than an acknowledgement that biological, psychological, and social factors are all relevant to understanding mental illness”. As she goes on, in one sense this is “so obvious as to be trivial”. The implication is that psychiatrists often say that the causes of mental illness are multifactorial. Rebecca Roache picks up Kenneth Kendler’s use of the term ‘dappled’ in this respect, although Kendler in fact does not see his empirically based pluralism as being the same as Engel’s biopsychosocial approach (see previous post).
As Rebecca Roache indicates, it is far from clear that Engel is taking an eclectic position. In fact, I do not think he does (see eg. previous post). I agree with her that his account can be improved, particularly when it has been so often misunderstood as eclectic (see another previous post). I have mentioned that Sanneke de Haan has criticised the biopsychosocial model for being vague about how the biological, psychological and social interact (see eg. previous post). I think her description of enactive psychiatry, seeing mental illness as abnormal sense-making (see another previous post), can help to flesh out the biopsychosocial model. I also think Thomas Fuchs ecological approach to understanding the brain (see eg. previous post) can do the same. Engel himself noted that his biopsychosocial approach links to Adolf Meyer’s Psychobiology (see eg. previous post and my article). I’m sure Engel’s biopsychosocial model can be enriched by accounts such as these. But we first need to understand it as a non-eclectic model, a mistake which I think came about because of psychiatry’s response to so-called anti-psychiatry (see eg. previous post).