What causes mental illness?

While we don’t know exactly what causes a specific mental illness, a number of things are often linked to its development. Mental illness usually results from a combination of recent events and other longer-term or personal factors, rather than one immediate issue or event. This is an important information to understand, so we understand mental illness as a health condition and not a result of a “weak mind”.

Life events

Research suggests that continuing difficulties – long-term unemployment, living in an abusive or uncaring relationship, long-term isolation or loneliness, prolonged work stress – are more likely to cause mental illness like depression than recent life stresses. However, recent events (such as losing your job) or a combination of events can ‘trigger' depression if you’re already at risk because of previous bad experiences or personal factors.

Personal factors

Family history – mental conditions may have a genetic predisposition towards anxiety and these conditions can sometimes run in a family. However, having a parent or close relative experience mental health condition doesn't mean you'll automatically develop a mental condition. Depression and anxiety can run in families and some people will be at an increased genetic risk. Life circumstances and other personal factors are still likely to have an important influence.

Personality – Some people may be more at risk of mental illness because of their personality. Particularly if a person has a tendency to worry a lot, have low self-esteem, are perfectionists, are sensitive to personal criticism, or are self-critical and negative is more likely to develop depression. Similarly, children who are perfectionists, easily flustered, timid, inhibited, lack self-esteem or want to control everything, sometimes develop anxiety during childhood, adolescence or as adults.

Serious medical illness – The stress and worry of coping with a serious illness can lead to depression, especially if you’re dealing with long-term management and/or chronic pain.

Drug and alcohol use – Drug and alcohol use can both lead to and result from depression. Many people with depression also have drug and alcohol problems. Some people who experience anxiety may use alcohol or other drugs to help them manage their condition. In some cases, this may lead to people developing a substance use problem along with their anxiety condition.

Ongoing stressful events

Mental conditions may develop because of one or more stressful life events.

Common triggers include:
  • work stress or job change
  • change in living arrangements
  • pregnancy and giving birth
  • family and relationship problems
  • major emotional shock following a stressful or traumatic event
  • verbal, sexual, physical or emotional abuse or trauma
  • death or loss of a loved one.

Changes in the brain

Although there’s been a lot of research in this complex area, there’s still much we don’t know. Depression is not simply the result of a ‘chemical imbalance’, for example because you have too much or not enough of a particular brain chemical. It’s complicated, and there are multiple causes of major depression, factors such as genetic vulnerability, severe life stressors, substances you may take (some medications, drugs and alcohol) and medical conditions can affect the way your brain regulates your moods.

Remember ...
Everyone’s different and it's often a combination of factors that can contribute to developing a mental condition. It's important to remember that you can't always identify the cause of the condition or change difficult circumstances. The most important thing is to recognize the signs and symptoms and seek support.

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