What Causes Mental Illness And How Do You Know If You’re At Risk Of Developing A Mental Disorder?

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What is mental illness?

Mental illness is a wide range of mental health disorders that affect your behavior, mood, and thinking. A few types of mental illnesses are depression, eating disorders, and anxiety disorders. There are many others.

Many individuals experience mental health problems now and then. Your mental health involves efficient functioning in day-to-day activities, resulting in:

  • Healthy relationships

  • Productive activities (school, work, caregiving)

  • Ability to cope with adversity and adapt to change

Mental health problems turn into mental illnesses when they cause symptoms that disrupt your normal daily functioning and cause frequent stress.

A mental illness can cause issues in your daily life, like at work, relationships, school, and make you feel miserable.

Mental disorders don't discriminate; they affect anyone regardless of their:

  • Gender

  • Age

  • Social status

  • Income

  • Race/ethnicity

  • Geography

  • Sexual orientation

  • Religion/spirituality

  • Background

Facts about mental illness:

  • One in five adults in the U.S. experience mental illness each year.¹

  • One in 20 adults in the U.S. experience a severe mental illness each year.¹

  • One in six young people in the U.S. between the ages of six and 17 experience a mental illness each year.²

  • Around 50% of all lifetime mental illnesses start by the age of 14, and 75% start by the age of 24.³

What do we know about the causes of mental illnesses?

What causes mental illness? First, know that a mental illness isn't the result of a single event. Research shows there are numerous linking causes.⁴

Lifestyle, genetics, and environment all influence whether a person develops a mental disorder. Stressful home life or job can make you more susceptible. Traumatic life events can as well. Basic brain structure and biochemical processes and circuits might play a role too.

Growing research shows there are specific genes and gene variations linked with mental illness.⁵ One of the best clues to determine if you have a higher risk of developing a mental illness or other common disorders is your family health history.

Certain mental illnesses tend to be hereditary and run in families. Therefore, if you have a close relative with a mental illness, it could mean you're at greater risk.

Although there are still plenty of clinical psychologists and researchers alike who are not informed on mental disorders, one thing is for sure. These illnesses are multi-causal and complex.

Many individuals often assume mental disorders simply run in families. While this is true, genetics are only a small part of the big picture. These illnesses actually occur because of a combination of factors that include your lifestyle and environment.

The world you're living and functioning in can play a significant role in mental illness.⁶ This includes:

Physical environmental factors

Different physical environmental factors can contribute to mental disorders and affect your neurochemistry or biology, increasing your risk of developing a disorder.

For instance, if you lack access to certain health-related resources like nutrient-rich, whole foods and tend to eat more refined and processed foods, your brain and body won't function optimally. This can lead to you not having the resources you require to effectively cope should you encounter a major stressor.

Along with poor nutrition, physical environmental factors might also include:

  • Smoking

  • Sleep deprivation

  • Pollution

  • Extreme weather conditions (i.e., excessive snow or rain)

  • Exposure to toxins during childhood

  • Substance abuse

  • Hazardous work conditions

Social environmental factors

These refer to racial and ethnic, socioeconomic, and relational conditions that might influence your ability to cope with stress. A strong social support system is a good example.

Let's say you lose your job or you go through a divorce. Having the support of your family and friends during times like these is important to your ability to cope well with stress.

Lacking social support is just one social environmental factor. Others are:

  • History of abuse

  • Social stigma (i.e., coming out as lesbian or gay)

  • Poverty

  • Family discord during childhood

  • Toxic relationships

  • Early loss of a parent

  • Lack of relaxation and/or self-care

  • Lack of religious affiliation or spirituality

  • Lack of hobbies or meaningful work

Overall well-being and health require a good balance of physical, emotional, social, mental, and spiritual health. You must remember that, depending on many factors, your mental health can change over time.

When your demands exceed your coping abilities and resources, your mental health can be affected. For instance, if you care for a relative, work long hours, or experience economic hardship, this might lead you to experience poor mental health.

Who is at risk of developing mental illness?

Most mental disorders have various causes, known as risk factors. The more of these you have, the increased chances you have of developing a mental illness.⁷

In some cases, the mental disorder develops gradually. Other times, it takes a stressful event to trigger it.

There are a number of triggers and risk factors, including:

  • Environment: You have a higher risk of developing a mental illness if you live in a stressful environment. Things like having an abusive family or living in poverty can add a lot of stress to your body and brain, triggering mental illness.

  • Genetics: Mental disorders frequently run in the family.

  • Poor physical health: Those with other medical conditions or chronic diseases are more likely to develop mental disorders. 

  • Stressful events: These can include being in a car accident or losing a loved one.

  • Childhood trauma: Things that happened during your childhood can still affect you later in life, even if you don't live in a stressful environment any longer.

  • Healthy habits: These can include not eating or not getting sufficient sleep.

  • Negative thoughts: Continuously expecting the worst or putting yourself down can cause you to become stuck in a cycle of anxiety or depression.

  • Brain chemistry: Mental disorders involve an imbalance of natural brain and body chemicals.

  • Alcohol and drugs: Abusing alcohol and drugs could trigger a mental disorder. It could also make it more difficult for you to recover from mental illness.

Risk factors like these don't just affect who develops a mental disorder. They also play a part in determining the severity of symptoms and the timing of these symptoms.

You can also take action to reduce your risk factors, which can help improve your mental health. This may include seeking treatment like therapy or medication.

How can you reduce your risk of developing mental illness?

There's no sure way to prevent or reduce mental illness. If you do have a mental disorder, however, taking measures to control stress, boost low self-esteem, and increase your resilience could help you manage your symptoms better and keep them under control.

Follow the steps below to reduce or to prevent developing mental illness:

Get routine health care

Don't skip visits to your primary care doctor or neglect checkups, particularly if you're not feeling well. You might have a new medical issue that requires treatment, or you might be experiencing side effects of your medicine.

Look for warning signs

Work closely with your therapist or doctor to learn what may be triggering your symptoms. Create a plan of action for what to do if your symptoms return.

Contact your therapist or doctor if you start noticing any changes in your symptoms or in how you feel. You might want to consider involving your family and friends to help watch for warning signs.

Take care of yourself

Healthy eating, sufficient sleep, and regular physical activity are essential. Try maintaining a regular schedule. Consult with your primary care doctor if you have sleep problems or questions about physical activity and diet.

Obtain help when you require it

Mental illness can be difficult to treat if you wait until your symptoms get worse. Not to mention, a long-term maintenance treatment might also help prevent a relapse of your symptoms.

The lowdown

Now that you've learned about mental illnesses, you know you're not alone if you're struggling with one. Anyone of any age can struggle with mental illness.

If mental illness runs in your family, you might want to speak with your primary care doctor or a mental health professional who will help you learn about and understand risk factors and preventive measures. Providing important information to your doctor and asking questions can help improve your care.

Remember, mental illness can be treated. You and your doctor and/or therapist will come up with a treatment plan tailored specifically for you. It typically involves some form of therapy. You might also take medication. Some individuals also require education on how to manage their condition and social support.

Mental disorders are not anyone's fault. For many individuals, recovery, including meaningful roles in work, school, and social life, is possible, particularly when you engage in early prevention and treatment.

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