It’s great to see so much in the media at the moment about mental health and attempts to reduce the stigma that surrounds it. Understanding what leads to mental health problems can further help to challenge the view that experiencing problems in this area means you are “weak” or “mad”. It is helpful to think about mental health on a continuum, as we do with physical health.
There is no definitive answer on the question of what causes mental health issues, but the following factors have all been shown in research to be hugely influential:
Biological vulnerability to mental health issues
Having a parent and/or other close family members with mental health problems is likely to make you more vulnerable from a biological perspective to experience mental ill-health yourself. This is particularly true for conditions such as schizophrenia.
Early environment & trauma
Our early relationships are key in shaping how we see ourselves, how we manage relationships and how we view the world. Difficulties in early attachments have a significant impact on healthy adult functioning. Causes of disrupted attachments include issues such as abuse, a lack of emotional support and nurturing, loss of a parent. School can also have a significant impact, particularly issues such as bullying. Research now shows that early trauma actually affects the brain’s development, particularly in the areas that control emotions. Trauma has been linked to a number of mental health difficulties including post-traumatic stress disorder, personality disorder and psychosis.
Stress and mental health
Even with biological vulnerability and difficulties in early relationships or trauma, an individual may not experience mental ill-health in adulthood. However, such problems could well be triggered by a significant event in adulthood (e.g. a loss) or a period of acute or sustained stress (e.g. at work). Stress may trigger mental health problems in people that do not have a strong biological vulnerability or difficulties in their early lives. So identifying and managing stress is key to maintaining mental wellbeing
Rather than focus just on what can be problematic in a person’s life, the research also suggests that resilience is a factor that determines whether someone will develop mental health problems. Resilience involves the ability to recognise and understand problems, to develop ways of coping, to find meaning to and accept life’s challenges, to be able to see the bigger picture and move forward. However, these are skills we learn predominantly through childhood, so a lack of resilience is often linked to the difficulties in early attachments and childhood environment highlighted above.
Given the various potential causes then, it does not seem surprising that 1 in 4 of us will experience mental health problems at some time in our lives; these factors are largely outside of our control. We cannot be held responsible for experiencing mental health challenges, although we can take responsibility for looking after our own mental health and caring for others’.