A person's hands type at a laptop. The graphic is captioned with the words 'The Biopsychosocial Health Study: Part One'.
Rebecca Wolfe, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln researcher, and her team are investigating topics in the field of biopsychosocial health. They focus on the connections between biological, psychological and social factors in overall health and wellness. Photo courtesy of cottonbro/Pexels. Graphic by Dominic Bhola/NNS.

A biopsychosocial health study is collecting data on the relationship between participants’ physical health, psychological well-being and social lives. The study, which launched in November 2020 at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, examines the interactions between each of these areas, which are also affected by environmental factors like COVID-19, the economy or politics.

Participants complete a series of seven surveys which include a range of questions about their physical, psychological and social health. The surveys are distributed monthly by email, and the participants can complete the surveys remotely without setting foot in a lab.

The researchers have continued collecting monthly data throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and into the present day. More than 200 participants responded to the initial survey in the series, with around 120 individuals progressing through all seven surveys. 

Rebecca Wolfe is an advanced graduate student at UNL and the principal researcher spearheading the study.

“Our biggest mission is to take a more biopsychosocial approach to our conceptualization and approach to how health is done,” Wolfe said.

An integrated approach to health

The Biopsychosocial Health Study uses a specially designed model for evaluating different components of health. 

In the model, five central areas of human functioning interact with each other. These areas, or factors, are biological, psychological, social, cognitive and behavioral. Each of these factors interconnect within the health model. 

The five areas of biopsychosocial health are encircled by environmental factors, which can affect all areas of the model simultaneously. Wolfe and her colleagues measure several environmental factors in the study, including the COVID-19 pandemic. Other environmental factors include the current economy and ongoing politics.

Health and well-being are at the center of the Biopsychosocial Health model. All the other factors of the model lead to overall health and well-being. 

biopsychosocial model 3 1024x860 - Researchers at UNL examining the relationship between physical, psychological, and social health
The Biopsychosocial Model forms the foundation of the health study. The model interconnects the five main areas of health according to the researchers, including biological, psychological, social, cognitive and behavioral factors. All areas are encircled by environmental factors, with overall health and well-being at the center. Graphic by Dominic Bhola/NNS.

Jennifer Blank is a research colleague who developed the study with Wolfe. She served as the lab manager for a year and partnered with Wolfe to design the study. Blank said it is critical to examine different, interconnected factors of health to better understand the human experience.

“I think it reminds you to think about all of the different areas which are impacting you and your own experience and how that relates to even intervening in your own life when you’re trying to think of making changes somewhere,” Blank said, “It gets put into perspective, where there’s all these other areas that are just as important, and that can help influence change that we’re looking for.”

The biopsychosocial approach has been evolving for almost one hundred years. The Biopsychosocial Health model is a magnified version of the Biosystemic Paradigm, which unites biology, psychology, and environmental sciences. Dr. Will Spaulding, who is Wolfe’s mentor and faculty supervisor of the study, is recognized for applying the Biosystemic Paradigm in diagnosing and treating severe mental illnesses. People with severe mental illness experience multiple health disparities, meaning physical health problems which are more frequent and severe than in other groups.

Wolfe created her version of the Biopsychosocial Health model to address health disparities and encompass a vast array of factors. These factors interact with each other to produce different effects on overall health and well-being.

“I think things are more intricately connected. We tend to simplify things and reduce them,” Wolfe said,  “It’s a function of our brains to manage things in life. But when you reduce things too far, you’re going to miss information, you’re going to miss clues, and you’re going to miss pieces of people’s stories and their well-being. So, we expanded as much as we can to capture how all these things work together, so we can really intervene at all different areas at the same time.”

Research continues, open to students

The researchers are still currently recruiting participants through the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s SONA website. Participants are awarded SONA research credits — which are often available as an extra credit option for psychology courses at UNL — or an Amazon gift card for their contribution to the study.

At the start of each survey, the researchers collect demographic data about their participants. Within the survey, there are periodic questions to ensure the participants are following along and responding to the best of their ability. Near the survey’s conclusion, the participants must agree that they responded truthfully and to the best of their ability, affirming that their responses can be used in the research sample.

Wolfe said a large sample size is key to answering powerful questions with longitudinal research. She’ll continue recruiting UNL students, and the Institutional Review Board recently approved her request to recruit students from any college or university within Nebraska. As the study obtains more funding and more traction, Wolfe hopes to increase her study’s sample by recruiting more students across Nebraska.

Wolfe said the study is still in its early stages due to the large scale of data collection and the vast scope of the project. The researchers will continue to evaluate the findings and build research projects based on the information they retrieve.

“I very much see people as being this really intricate woven pattern of all these different moving pieces, all these different thoughts and components and feeling and forces within themselves and also the environment,” Wolfe said, “So that’s honestly what grew into this Biopsychosocial Health Study, where everyone is their own ‘person system.'”

Dominic Bhola is a journalist with an attraction to poetry. He is a senior journalism major at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and will be graduating in December 2022. In his free time, he enjoys literary editing and growing strawberries.