Medical model of Psychological disorders

October 30, 2016

Contrast the medical model of

psychosurgeryBy published 2008, updated 2014

The medical model of mental illness treats mental disorders in the same way as a broken arm, i.e. there is thought to be a physical cause. This model has been adopted by psychiatrists rather than psychologists.

Supporters of the medical model consequently consider symptoms to be outward signs of the inner physical disorder and believe that if symptoms are grouped together and classified into a ‘syndrome’ the true cause can eventually be discovered and appropriate physical treatment administered.


  • The biological approach to psychopathology believes that disorders have an organic or physical cause. The focus of this approach is on genetics, neurotransmitters, neurophysiology, neuroanatomy etc. The approach argues that mental disorders are related to the physical structure and functioning of the brain.
  • Behaviors such as hallucinations are 'symptoms' of mental illness as are suicidal ideas or extreme fears such as phobias about snakes and so on. Different illnesses can be identified as 'syndromes', clusters of symptoms that go together and are caused by the illness.
  • These symptoms lead the psychiatrist to make a 'diagnosis' for example 'this patient is suffering from a severe psychosis, he is suffering from the medical condition we call schizophrenia'.

What is happening here? The doctor makes a judgement of the patient's behavior, usually in a clinical interview after a relative or general practitioner has asked for an assessment. The doctor will judge that the 'patient' is exhibiting abnormal behavior by asking questions and observing the patient.

Judgement will also be influenced heavily by what the relatives and others near to the patient say and the context – is mental illness more likely to be diagnosed in a mental hospital.

Diagnostic Criteria

In psychiatry the psychiatrist must be able to validly and reliably diagnose different mental illnesses. The first systematic attempt to do this was by Emil Kraepelin who published the first recognized textbook on psychiatry in 1883. Kraepelin claimed that certain groups of symptoms occur together sufficiently frequently for them to be called a disease. He regarded each mental illness as a distinct type and set out to describe its origins, symptoms, course and outcomes.

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