When we speak of causes of mental illnesses, we often find there is no single cause but rather a combination. We tend to categorize these causes into three main groups biological, psychological, and environmental. Under each group lies possible risk factors that can contribute to the onset of mental illness. The more risk factors you encounter, the more likely your chances of enduring a mental illness may be. Matters of the brain are complicated, as causes depend on the individual and the type of disorder. Mental illness could remain dormant or ‘activate’ depending on one’s unique experience with exposed risk factors. The move from ‘dormant’ to ‘active’ is the direct consequence of what we call triggers. Triggers are different for each person. What may set off one might not spark the other.
So we often hear people debate whether “it’s a chemical imbalance.” To give this phrase meaning, we refer to the increase or reduced number of neurotransmitters that affect the overall functioning of the neural network.
Neurotransmitters are responsible for communicating signals between nerve cells. The abnormal functioning of these nerve pathways, which connect to distinct parts of the brain, may result in mental disorders.
Speaking of functionality and brain regions, the occurrence of a brain injury may bring about mental disorders. As we know, our brains are central to the functioning of our bodies. When a part of it takes a hit, it could alter our moods, the way we think and act.
The type of disorder is dependent on the impact, the region affected, and the severity of the injury.
Then comes genetics. Similarly, you may get your green eyes from Mom and your freckles from Dad in the form of genes. There is reason to believe that susceptibility to mental illness is no different. The gist of genetics and mental illness is that some disorders may run in families. A hypothesis that suggests if a direct family member has a mental illness, one may be more likely to develop it themselves. It is the susceptibility that passes down in families. The abnormalities in a family member’s gene pool do not warrant an onset of a mental illness but present a risk factor. There are variables to consider, like your environment and how you choose to respond to it. Exposure to abuse/ traumatic events could activate a mental illness that is underlying due to genes.
The phenomenon of triggers.
Infections and diseases play a role in contributing to the evolution of a mental illness. In a comparable way that disease/ infection causes your physical health to decline, your mental health suffers too. Generally, the assumption is that one who is experiencing a disease/ infection has poor health overall. Following, the belief that their habits are unhealthy; poor diet, substance use, and exercise levels. The added impact of medications and poor lifestyle choices due to disease/infection can contribute to the progression of a mental illness.
While focusing on the biological causes in one’s postnatal lifespan, we must consider the conditions of an individual’s prenatal experience. The fetus’s exposure and the environment before birth coincide with its growth. Any disruption or impairment that affects the unborn child’s brain development is known as prenatal damage. Sadly, this damage can cause adverse effects on one’s mental health before their life outside of the womb begins.
Determinants of a mental illness include a mother using drugs or alcohol during her pregnancy and her exposure to infections/illness. Mother’s in traumatic environments; exposed to violence, abuse, and high levels of stress increase the likelihood of negatively affecting the neurodevelopment of their fetus. In addition, the probability of their child acquiring a mental illness.
Our environments indeed shape us.
Psychological and environmental factors intertwine, both supporting the premise that the trigger of emotional stress may stimulate a mental illness. It is no secret that severe psychological trauma may lead to mental illness. One’s suffering in the form of emotional, sexual, or physical abuse increases the risk, though it is also dependent on the individual’s reaction to those stressors. Childhood neglect or an early loss of a parent all provide psychological risk factors for mental illness.
Environmental factors include the challenges we face in our lifespan. Deeply rooted in the psychological effect these changes have, each stressor can be a potential risk factor. Triggers such as the illness of a relative, divorce, change in jobs, or schools all present the possibility of mental disorders.
Living in poverty or dysfunctional family life can cause one to experience an episode of mental illness. Political unrest, socio-cultural expectations, discrimination, and social disadvantage are catalysts that can cause long-lasting consequences to one’s mental well-being. Each stressor has the power to drive one into a mood or anxiety-related disorder. A common mental health condition is post-traumatic stress disorder triggered by distressing events that one witnesses or experiences.
The length of the exposure, the severity, one’s age, and prior stresses are all conditions that determine the way one is affected. With the notion that we are all unique individuals, we must acknowledge that one may be more resilient to certain traumatic stressors than others. Our resilience varies due to our characteristics, personality types, coping mechanisms, and previous trauma.
There is beauty in the idea that none of us walk the same paths. Our journey and response to our environment uniquely define each of us. While providing us with an empathetic lens to which we should view others and mental health.
The only path you know is yours, so before making a quick judgment on one’s mental illness, understand the variation and cumulative causes that may have got them there.