What Causes Mental illness?

image There is now strong evidence that mental illness is not caused by any single factor, but results from a number of factors in combination. In many disorders there is strong genetic predisposition (e.g. schizophrenia and psychoses), but environmental factors are vitally important in the most prevalent mental illnesses (e.g. Anxiety Disorder, Major Depression, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder).

Genetics, plus: early life experiences (upbringing; education; experiences of love, joy, acceptance, happiness and support on the one hand; and of abuse, subjugation, trauma and grief on the other).

These experiences, combined with our coping skills and our innate sensitivities, all contribute to how we cope with life stresses as adults.

Hans Selye1 demonstrated the scientific basis for stress-related illness in the 1950s. Thanks to Selye, and his discovery of ‘The General Adaptation Syndrome’ (G.A.S.) we now know that anyone – given sufficient adverse life events – will experience some form of mental health problem. The point is that despite popular belief – EVERYONE has a breaking point given certain conditions.
So what precipitates mental illnesses such as Anxiety Disorder, Major Depression, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?
There are many life events that can contribute to mental illness because they cause the body to go into a state of stress. This involves a lot of chemical changes within the body associated with the G.A.S. If harmful stress continues over a lengthy period, it can trigger pathological changes within the body. Stress is likely to accompany any one or more of the following:
  • Psychological Abuse
  • Subjugation
  • Bullying
  • Powerlessness
  • Sexual/Physical Assault
  • Loss of a Bodily Function
  • Military Service
  • Torture
  • Chronic Pain
  • Loss of loved one
  • Divorce/Separation
  • Homelessness
  • Discrimination
  • Harassment
  • Demeaning
  • Redundancy
  • Demotion
  • Retirement
  • Bankruptcy
  • The Legal Process
  • Poverty
  • Chronic Insomnia
  • Unrealistic deadlines/goals
  • …any experience/s that have a lasting adverse impact on our ability to cope with daily life.
Cummulative Effects
Whether or not any of these adverse life events results in mental health problems (perhaps years later) will depend upon several factors.

The first will be the strength of the emotional impact, and the second is the cummulative number of such adverse life events that occur over time. A very powerful emotional experience can act like a ticking time bomb, only to explode and cause problems much later in life.

Holmes and Rahe2 were the first to highlight the importance of cummulative adverse life events in the development of mental health problems. Although such scales can never be complete, the Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale is a valuable tool for all mental health professionals in ensuring that life events are included in a comprehensive mental health assessment.

1. Selye, H. The Stress of Life, 1956. New York: McGraw-Hill.
2. Holmes, TH & Rahe, RH. The Social Readjustment Rating Scale.
Jnl. Psychosomatic Research, 11:213-18, 1967.

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