Fresh Ideas: What causes mental illness?

As a psychologist, one of the questions I get asked the most is, “Why is this happening to me?” In other words, why do some people experience depression and anxiety? Why do they have an addiction? Why does their child have obsessive compulsive disorder or schizophrenia?

In the military, soldiers often wonder why they experience post-traumatic stress disorder, while fellow soldiers, who went through the same combat, may not. Similarly, in a family one sibling may have bipolar disorder, while none of their siblings do.

The answer to these questions are complex, and for each disorder, there are slightly different causes. Research is begging to shed light on some of the causes of mental illness.

Many of the causes that lead to mental illness are also the causes that lead to physical illnesses like heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. Family genetics, biology, exposure to traumatic experiences, chronic stress, substance abuse, diet and exercise, social support, and coping skills can all contribute to physical and psychological health.

Mental health disorders do run in families. If a parent, grandparent, or aunt or uncle has a mental illness, you have a one in 10 chance of inheriting that disorder. In identical twins, if your twin has a psychological disorder, you have a one in two chance of developing a similar disorder. The good news is in comparison to other medical disorders, this “inheritance” rate is relatively low. Think about it this way, even if your mother suffered from depression, you only have a one in 10 chance of becoming depressed at some time in your life.

Biology is another major factor. Neurotransmitters are brain chemicals that communicate information between our brain and body. Your brain uses neurotransmitters to tell your lungs to breathe and your heart to beat. Neurotransmitters also regulate our sleep, appetite and mood. It’s believed those whose bodies produce too little, or too much, of certain neurotransmitters develop mental health disorders.

If someone experiences abuse or neglect in their upbringing, their brain and body are subjected to high rates of cortisol, our body’s stress hormone, and are thus much more likely to experience physical and psychological disorders. Chronic stress, and major life disruptions, disrupt the flow of our neurotransmitters and can set off depression and anxiety.

Moderate to heavy drug or alcohol use can cause mental health symptoms to emerge earlier and to become more serious. Diet, exercise, sleep patterns, and smoking, also contribute to both physical and emotional health. Social support can be a “maker or breaker” in both medical and mental disorders; the more support a person has, the less likely they are to become physically or psychologically impacted. Positive coping skills help protect people from mental and physical illness.

It’s likely a combination of some, or all of these factors, cause mental health disorders. For example, a soldier who experienced child abuse while growing up, and whose parent suffered from anxiety, is more likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder after combat than his or her fellow soldiers who didn’t have early life abuse and who didn’t have a genetic predisposition to anxiety.

The World Health Organization recently reported one in four people worldwide will experience some form of mental illness at some time in their life. This means many of us, and those we care about, have the potential to experience mental health symptoms.

The problem is, there’s a stigma attached to psychological disorders, much more so than medical disorders. People with depression, anxiety, and other psychological symptoms often feel, and are seen by others, as “weak.” They feel embarrassed and ashamed, as if they have done something to cause the disorder, or they succumbed to illness because they are “weak.” When someone has a physical disorder like cancer or heart disease, we are much less likely to jump to these negative judgments.

The hope of those in the mental health field is the more we are educated about the causes of mental health disorders, the less stigma is going to be attached to those suffering with mental illness. This may free more people up to seek treatment they need, and for all of us to support our loved ones with mental illness. The treatment for those in emotional pain is like those with physical pain: therapy and medication. And those who receive treatment are likely to get better.

Lisa Keating, Ph.D., is a Carson City clinical psychologist.

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