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The science of the mind: investigating mental health

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To what extent can we understand mental wellbeing and treat mental health conditions such as depression and dementia by focusing on the brain and its functioning? This module presents and challenges the medical model of mental health with its reliance on drug treatment, contrasting it with ideas in the field of health psychology. You will learn from case reports of those who have a mental health condition and those who care for them, as well as from relevant research studies. The module has an emphasis on understanding different approaches within psychology, as well as the nature of evidence for and against these approaches.

If you are considering progressing to Preparing for graduate practice (KYN317), you must have normally completed Principles and skills for nursing practice (KYN237) and Exploring perspectives on health and illness (KYN238), and either this module or Human biology (SKYN277 or SK277).

What you will study

The module is structured as one introductory block, plus three additional topic blocks covering material as described below. Each block comprises of a book and associated multimedia in the form of video and audio excerpts, animations and activities with the assessment linked throughout. All blocks contain case reports illustrating the mental health or ill-health phenomena being studied, and all present evidence enabling you to compare and contrast ways of thinking about mental health, mental ill-health and mental health interventions.

In the introductory block you’ll explore the relationship between mind and body and the idea that mental phenomena have a physiological basis in the brain. You will be introduced to two models of studying and explaining mental health conditions. The first is the biomedical model of mental health. Here, an understanding of brain function is considered to be sufficient for understanding mental health conditions. The second model, the biopsychosocial model, is where the functioning of the brain is considered necessary but only as a factor that interacts with other psychological and social factors.

The over-arching aim of the module is to illustrate how, and why, the biopsychosocial model has emerged as a reaction to the limitations of the biomedical approach with the development of the field of health psychology. Therefore all blocks demonstrate how the biopsychosocial model can be applied to enhance our understanding of mental health and ill-health, both in theory and in mental health care. Throughout all blocks the role of preventive measures to guard against mental ill-health is discussed, as well as the promotion of wellbeing. Consequently the module aims to achieve a balance between a positive and a negative focus. 

Block 1: Core concepts in mental health

This block introduces the concepts of mental health and ill-health, and develops your understanding of the link between mind and body (or brain). A study of the biological basis of psychological health and ill-health informs our understanding of the way that drug treatments can be successful at alleviating symptoms. This requires some knowledge of the brain and the way in which different parts of the brain and nervous system communicate with one another. However, the block also presents the idea that a full understanding can only be gained by a parallel consideration of subjective and objective evidence. So both personal narratives and objective evidence are used to gain insight into behavioural distress. At the beginning of the block a number of people are introduced and aspects of their life stories are followed through the block. Theoretical considerations are further augmented by consideration of how diagnoses are made and the range of treatments – both chemical (drugs) and psychological – that are available to those who seek the help of external agencies for treatment for their distress. 

Block 2: Mood and wellbeing

Stress, anxiety and depression are commonly experienced conditions that impact on general wellbeing. They are frequently treated by biological (drug) forms of therapy, which raises crucial issues on the nature of brain-mind interdependence. This block explores this issue as well as discussing research into the factors that make us happy and may protect against the development of mood disorders. Our moods vary daily but some people seem to have a naturally sunny disposition while others find it much harder to see the positives that life offers. ‘Life is unfair’, but social and psychological inequalities do not explain every case where an individual moves down the continuum from unhappiness to disabling depression. How might a biopsychosocial approach inform our decision-making for preventing and treating these forms of mental distress?

Block 3: Addictions

This block asks what we mean by the term ’addiction‘ and whether we can truly consider it as a mental health condition. It explores the many forms that addiction can take and asks if we could potentially become addicted to anything that is pleasurable and why we classify certain substances as illegal and not others. The biological basis of addiction illustrates that all forms of addiction activate similar brain pathways. What is the link between the activation of these pathways and altered states of mind? If the activated pathways are the same, why is the subjective experience of smoking tobacco different from taking cocaine? Not everyone who takes addictive substances or indulges in potentially addictive behaviour becomes an addict.

So this block considers the evidence for viewing addiction as a disease, examines the effectiveness of pharmacological treatment strategies for addiction and looks at the alternatives available. It then moves towards a more balanced view of factors impacting on addictive behaviour and how a biopsychosocial viewpoint on addiction (and its treatment strategies) may better inform public health practitioners and policymakers.

Block 4:  Dementias

Dementias are a growing problem in our society as people live to a greater age. What changes occur in our cognitive function and capacity as we get older? How can we effectively distinguish normal ageing from the development of dementia? How can we link degeneration of brain structures to cognitive and behavioural changes that occur in various forms of dementia? How much is known about the causes of dementias and, perhaps more importantly, about how to prevent or at least delay their onset? What are the treatment possibilities and what are their theoretical rationales? This block explores the efficacy of emerging psychological and social therapies for dementia and draws direct contrasts with biological treatments, asking whether a biopsychosocial viewpoint brings significant advantages compared to a biomedical viewpoint.

This block also completes the module by returning to our initial idea that the mind has a physiological basis. We ask you to reflect on where this thinking has lead in our perception (and treatment) of mental health. In particular, we ask you to decide what your answers would be to the following two questions:

  • What more can we achieve in terms of mental wellbeing and the treatment of mental distress if we think also of psychological and social factors in addition to those that are biological?
  • What evidence do we have that a biopsychosocial approach is critical?

This module will appeal to anyone who is curious about the link between mind and brain. In particular to anyone who supports and cares for people with mental distress, whether professionally or as family or a friend.

Entry requirements

This is an OU level 2 module and you need to have study skills appropriate for this level of study, obtained through OU level 1 study or by doing equivalent work at another university.

If you are new to study at a higher education level, we recommend that you study one of the following 60-credit OU level 1 modules – Introducing the social sciences (DD102), Introduction to health and social care (K101), Science and health: and evidence based approach (SDK100) or the discontinued module Exploring science (S104) – before SDK228. OU level 1 study will provide you with the appropriate skills for studying this OU level 2 module.

It is not essential to have a scientific background to study this module, although clearly some knowledge of basic biology would be very useful.

The booklet Are You Ready For SDK228? can help you to decide whether you already have the recommended background knowledge or experience to start the module or whether you need a little extra preparation. Students who are appropriately prepared have the best chance of completing their studies successfully.

If you have any doubt about the suitability of the module, please speak to an adviser.

Preparatory work

Because of the multidisciplinary nature of this module and the wide range of students likely to be studying it, it is difficult to suggest preparatory work that will be appropriate for all students. However, the following publications would provide some sound background reading for the module. These are by no means compulsory and the module does not assume prior knowledge in these areas.

Pilgrim, D. (2009) Key Concepts in Mental Health, 2nd edn, Sage.

Johnstone, L. and Rowe, D. (2000) Users and Abusers of Psychiatry: A Critical Look at Psychiatric Practice, Routledge

Toates, F. (ed.) (2007) Pain, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

What's included

Four printed module books; study guide, glossary, assignments, forums and other resources all provided via a dedicated website.

Computing requirements

A computing device with a browser and broadband internet access is required for this module. Any modern browser will be suitable for most computer activities. Functionality may be limited on mobile devices.

Any additional software will be provided, or is generally freely available. However, some activities may have more specific requirements. For this reason, you will need to be able to install and run additional software on a device that meets the requirements below.

A desktop or laptop computer with either:

  • Windows 7 or higher
  • Mac OS X 10.7 or higher

The screen of the device must have a resolution of at least 1024 pixels horizontally and 768 pixels vertically.

To join in the spoken conversation in our online rooms we recommend a headset (headphones or earphones with an integrated microphone).

Our Skills for OU study website has further information including computing skills for study, computer security, acquiring a computer and Microsoft software offers for students.

Teaching and assessment

Support from your tutor

You will have a tutor who will help you with the study material and mark and comment on your written work, and whom you can ask for advice and guidance. We may also be able to offer group tutorials or day schools that you are encouraged, but not obliged, to attend. Where your tutorials are held will depend on the distribution of students taking the module.  

Some activities will involve collaborative work among the students in your tutor group, conducted online via the forum network with support from your tutor. Participation in these activities will be essential in enabling you to complete some of the assessed work for this module.

Contact us if you want to know more about study with The Open University before you register.


The assessment details for this module can be found in the facts box above.

You will be expected to submit your tutor-marked assignments (TMAs) online through the eTMA system unless there are some difficulties which prevent you from doing so. In these circumstances, you must negotiate with your tutor to get their agreement to submit your assignment on paper.

If you have a disability

The OU strives to make all aspects of study accessible to everyone and this Accessibility Statement outlines what studying SDK228 involves. You should use this information to inform your study preparations and any discussions with us about how we can meet your needs.

Future availability

The science of the mind: investigating mental health (SDK228) starts once a year – in October. This page described the module that will start in October 2019. It will start for the last time in October 2019. A new module, Brain, mind and mental health (SK298) is planned to start for the first time in October 2020.

Course work includes:

3 Tutor-marked assignments (TMAs)
End-of-module assessment
No residential school

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