The 4 P’s of Mental Health Treatment

I like to conceptualize the etiology and treatment of mental illness using the framework of the 4 P’s: predisposing factors, precipitating factors, perpetuating factors, and prognostic factors.

Predisposing Factors are risk factors which create vulnerability to developing a particular illness.  

Examples of predisposing factors:

Why are they important?

Predisposing factors are important in helping individuals and their families understand their vulnerabilities and in alleviating the guilt, shame, blame, and stigma surrounding mental illness. Once families learn that the patient did not choose to develop this mental illness and the parents did not cause it, they have more energy to devote to recovery.

A word of caution: Predisposing factors are probabilistic, not deterministic.  In other words, having one or more predisposing factors for a particular mental illness does not mean that developing that illness is inevitable.  It simply means that vulnerability is heightened.

Precipitating Factors, known more casually as “triggers,” are events or circumstances that immediately precede the development of a disorder.

Examples of precipitating factors:

  • A loss of some sort (e.g., breakup of a romantic relationship, death of a loved one) often precipitates the onset of depression.
  • An energy imbalance (e.g., consuming fewer calories than one expends) almost always precipitates the development of anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa
  • A stressful situation (e.g., final exams in high school or college) may precipitate the onset of an anxiety disorder

Why are they important?

Awareness of the factors that have precipitated a mental health diagnosis is an important part of assessment. Relapse prevention planning, which typically happens towards the end of treatment, should help the patient and family develop awareness of the most common precipitating factors for their particular illness(es) so that  they can avoid those precipitating factors when possible, or be prepared to approach them skillfully and mindfully, with ample supports in place, if they are unavoidable.   

A word of cation: Precipitating factors are not the same as causes.  The majority of individuals go through multiple stressors in their lives without developing a mental illness.  A genetic predisposition is necessary, though not sufficient, for the development of a mental illness. 

Another word of caution: Discussion of precipitating factors shouldn’t be a major focus of treatment.  Once a disorder is set in motion by a perpetuating factor, the disorder takes on a life of its own and becomes self-perpetuating.  It ceases to be “about” that precipitating factor.

Perpetuating Factors are events or circumstances that keep an illness in motion, or those things that cause symptoms to continue occurring over a period of time.

Examples of perpetuating factors:

  • Malnutrition, weight suppression, excessive exercise, and binge/purge behaviors perpetuate an eating disorder. 
  • Environmental stressors, such as a highly rigorous academic environment, social exclusion or bullying, or elite athletic training, may perpetuate an anxiety disorder.   
  • All forms of anxiety are perpetuated by heightened physiological arousal and avoidance
  • Irregular sleep schedules, social isolation, and habitual use of marijuana are common perpetuating factors for depression.
  • Distorted patterns of thinking perpetuate most mental illnesses.  

Why are they important?

Most successful mental health treatment is focused on identifying and modifying perpetuating factors. Most, though not all, perpetuating factors are modifiable and can be changed through cognitive or behavioral interventions. 

A word of caution: The most powerful perpetuating factors are often those that directly impact physiology and brain function. For example, starvation is a powerful perpetuating factor in anorexia nervosa, and sleep deprivation is a powerful perpetuating factor in depression. A brain that is malnourished or severely sleep deprived is unlikely to respond well to psychological interventions. Cognitive perpetuating factors, which are also important, can be addressed most effectively later in treatment, after basic physiological function has been restored.

Prognostic Factors are factors which help to determine the eventual outcome, or prognosis, of treatment.

Examples of prognostic factors:

  • Early diagnosis and prompt intervention are positive prognostic factors.
  • Receiving evidence-based treatment is likely to shorten the duration of illness and increase the likelihood of achieving full recovery .
  • Dropping out of treatment prematurely reduces the likelihood of full recovery.
  • The presence of strong social support from family and friends increases the likelihood of full recovery and reduces the risk of relapse.
  • Full weight restoration, and maintenance of optimal body weight over time, dramatically improves the prognosis for anorexia nervosa.
  • Relapse prevention planning improves long-term prognosis by reducing the risk of relapse and guiding the type and timing of intervention if the patient begins to struggle again.
  • Practicing consistent self-care habits, including good sleep hygiene, regular exercise, and balanced nutrition, improves the prognosis for most illnesses.

Why are they important?

Prognostic factors are important to share with patients and families so that they can work together with treatment providers to create the best possible treatment outcome.  Prognostic factors are relevant at the time of diagnosis (to help patients and their families act swiftly and choose evidence-based treatment), during treatment (to instill hope when treatment gets difficult and inspire everyone to stay the course rather than dropping out prematurely) and at the end of treatment, when relapse prevention plans are created. Prognostic factors are also important after treatment ends, as they relate to sustaining continued recovery and well-being.

A word of caution: prognostic factors, like predisposing factors, are probabilistic, not deterministic. Having positive prognostic factors does not guarantee a good outcome. Positive prognostic factors merely increase the statistical likelihood of long-term recovery and reduce vulnerability to relapse.