|   Answering your mental health questions

What Causes Mental Illness?

The question of what causes mental illness is a complex one. One one hand, experts aren’t sure exactly what causes it; on the other hand, they have identified many potential causes of mental illness. What they do know is that the development of mental health problems is most likely and in most cases dependent upon multiple contributing factors.

Possible Mental Illness Triggers: Internal

There is strong evidence that biology plays a significant role in the development of mental health disorders. Biological factors that may contribute to the development of mental illness include:

  • Chemistry. Recent research points to an imbalance in brain chemistry as a very probable cause of several kinds of mental illness, including depression and anxiety disorders. Specifically, experts believe that low levels of serotonin, a “mood transmitting” neurotransmitter, may be to blame.
  • Genetics. Having mental illness in your family doesn’t directly cause you to have one — mental illness isn’t passed on like brown eyes or wide feet. However, although you don’t inherit mental illness, your genetics do play a significant role in making you predisposed to developing certain mental disorders. For example, having a parent with bipolar disorder doesn’t cause you to have it too, but it does cause your odds of developing bipolar disorder to significantly increase.

Possible Mental Illness Triggers: External

Circumstantial and environmental factors that experts believe can contribute to the development of mental illness include:

Did You Know?

At one time, it was customary to blame parents for their child’s mental illness. Thankfully, although mental illness causes are still not fully understood, medical knowledge about them has advanced far beyond erroneously blaming any person, from parents to the mentally ill person themselves.

  • Viral infection. Some doctors point to certain early childhood illnesses as possible triggers of conditions such as autism and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
  • Traumatic event. A negatively impactful event can play a part in the surfacing of mental illness and/or in the exacerbation of symptoms. For example, the death of a loved one can trigger a bout of complicated grief that escalates to depression, or experiencing a severe panic attack in public can lead to agoraphobia.
  • Stressful and/or volatile environment. Surroundings such as an angry or abusive home or a highly stressful job can trigger symptoms of any number of mental illnesses, including depression, anxiety, eating disorders and addictions.

Some factors that can contribute to your developing a mental illness, like your family history and your serotonin balance, are beyond your control. But while your actions can’t determine for sure whether or not you will develop a mental disorder, you can do your best to take care of your physical, mental and emotional health to limit your risk or the severity of your symptoms as much as possible.

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