Mental Illness: The Bio-Psycho-Social Spheres of Influence

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Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

Many of our readers, after reading an article here at Mental Help Net, will report something like this,” Well, I’m not like that,” or, “That never happened to me even though…”

They raise a very good question. Why do some people experience depression, PTSD, an anxiety disorder or some other mental illness while others do not?


Let me give you and example of a situation that, by every means and definition, should have resulted in depression and emotional devastation for these people:

Mr. Y., Jewish, grew up on the Soviet Union, lost most of his family when the Nazis invaded the USSR, endured the terrifying fighting and bombing during the war, and faced enormous anti semitism during his years thereafter.

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He was forced to tolerate the anti semitism despite the fact that he was an engineer working on top secret military projects during the Cold War.

After the fall Soviet Union, he emigrated to the United States, learned English, earned his citizenship, became an engineer in his adopted country returned to school and earned his teaching credentials and taught physics in the public schools where he was recognized as a wonderful educator.”

Despite all of the trauma this man had to live through from childhood to adulthood, he did not become depressed. He married and had a child in Russia before coming to America. The family faced terrible privation until he was able to gain employment. Why is it that he emerged in good mental health while another person would have been permanently scarred by this life history?

Why is it that one person will grow up with abusive parents and adjust well to life while others feel scarred by what happened to them? Why are some people able to look back on their childhood and their experiences with a chuckle while others remain angry and resentful? why is it that siblings growing up in the same household think very differently about their parents and childhood?

There is no easy explanation for why each of us becomes the unique individuals we are. In studying human behavior and development, psychologists look at the Bio-Psych-Social spheres of influence that impact on human development.

Try to imagine an individual comprised of three concentric circles labelled: Circle B, Circle P, and Circle S. The circles overlap to some degree.

Circle B. represents the biological sphere of influence with such things as one’s genetic: tendencies towards depression, anxiety, OCD, addiction, psychosis, bipolar disorder, etc. Because we are discussing genetics, it’s important to look at family history of each of these to understand the extent that a mental illness is inherited.

Circles P. represents the Psycho sphere of influence comprised of such things as, self esteem issues, developmental issues, life events, traumatic events, extroversion vs. introversion, personality tendencies, and etc.

Circle S. represents the social sphere of influence with such things as, achievement expectations, economic and political background, religious influences, peer group pressure, presence of drugs and alcohol, sexual pressure, family conflict, and etc.

In envisioning these spheres of influence on our mental illness or lack thereof, it is necessary to grasp the fact that some people have one circle or sphere that is much larger than the others. For example, it is possible that such social influences as being bullied in school and growing up with parental conflict, will weigh heavier than other spheres in causing a mental illness. One veteran of war will emerge from combat with no PTSD another will find the same traumas to be crippling.

Even with a genetic predisposition to such an illness as depression, the social sphere may be such that symptoms of depression rarely occur.

In summary, people can be subject to the same types of life events but experience them differently. Mr. Y. remains an optimistic and energetic individual. He has Russian Jewish friends who shared the horrific experiences of Stalinist Russia but are now depressed, introverted and extremely pessimistic about life.

Frequently, parents of adult children, feel extremely guilty about their sons and daughters become addicted, eating disordered or mentally ill. If you are one of those, you need to realize that all of these factors went into making your child there individual he or she is today.

In my thinking, there is an optimistic understanding that can be gained by understanding these three influences on our lives. It is this: “If it took so many variables to make me who I am today, I can shape the kinds of influences I will allow myself to be subject to, now and forever. For example, I can change the social back ground I live in so that I put myself in happier situations. I can realize that, even though I inherited certain genetic predispositions, I can reduce its influence by reducing stress, and be involved in interesting and satisfying activities. I can remind myself that I am a human being and do not have to live the role of victim of my past.”

Your comments and questions are encouraged

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

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