main causes of mental illness

simply stephen / February 14, 2012

There is not a simple formula to discover what causes the vast majority of mental disorders. It’s not like a broken bone caused from an event, diagnosed then repaired. It slowly creeps up after lurking in the background or may silently have always been there.


Nobody has the complete picture but once discovered, perhaps a preventative treatment can reduce the frequency and amount of pain and suffering on a greater scale.

The good news.

There are many known reasons and many treatments. Seeking solutions and treatments is much more important if you are already suffering from a mental illness.

It is generally believed that all mental disorders are caused by a complex interaction and combination of biological, psychological and social factors. ~ John M. Grohol, Psy.D.

To simplify it can be broken down into three main categories.


  • genetics – you may have a family history and it has been passed on
  • brain chemistry – an event or lifestyle choices such as diet and activity have changed the chemicals in your brain
  • ageing – as you get older you are more susceptible to illness
  • illness – cancer, heart attack, stroke and many diseases can threaten your immune system, body and frame of mind
  • injury – a physical or head injury can cause varying levels and types of mental illness
  • pregnancy – what the mother does during pregnancy can change how the brain develops in a child

environmental & social

  • home life – we are taught and influenced to be a certain way at home. A happy home life contributes to a happier life while a disturbing one will play a role in how you cope.
  • work – the type of job, coworkers and passion for work will contribute significantly to your well being and mental health.
  • where you live – environment impacts us all. Do we live in the country or city? Is the part of town you live in nice, friendly, dangerous, etc? What is your shelter like? The long term impact of your living arrangements will contribute to your mental state.
  • influences – like your home life the friends, family and people you are exposed to will shape your state of mind on a lasting level.
  • activities – what you do and where you do them will play a part in your mental health. Exposure to intense activities or too much of one activity and not enough of another (for example a physical one) will keep you out of balance.
  • personality – the type of person you are is highly connected to many of the above but will become a part of who you are, how you feel and act. There are positive and negative aspects of each trait that can be managed over time. The type of personality affects your mood, confidence , self-esteem and so much more which contributes to your attitudes and coping mechanisms.

psychological or emotional

  • stress – the amount of stress you have in your life and how you manage it will contribute to your mental health. Your job, activities and lifestyle all play a role. Finding the right outlets to reduce the cause(s) is paramount.
  • trauma – an accident, rape, witness to an atrocity, war, even pregnancy can trigger or create many mental health issues. Many events or long term exposures are considered a main cause.
  • significant life event – pregnancy, divorce, death, loss of friendship, dept and other realities of life and the world can heavily impact your mental health. The levels of support available and the help you seek can minimize the suffering.
  • abuse – many forms of abuse exist: physical, emotional, sexual; each one leave a lasting impression on the victim and people involved
  • bullying – adds fear and anxiety to a persons life. Confidence, esteem and desire can be greatly diminished. It is not just limited to the school yard either, as workplace bullying and pressures are prominent.

As you can see there are many factors that can cause depression, anxiety and all mental disorders. There is an overlap between them. No one factor is the sole cause.

It is a menu of many.

To pinpoint “the why” is not always as important as dealing with the how to recover and lead a healthy, happy life. One in which you function on a regular daily basis. Understanding the causes can improve the chances of handling and preventing a mental illness. It also helps address the stigma attached to mental health.


John M. Grohol, Psy. D, The Causes of Depression, Psych Central,

What Causes Mental Illness, Rethink Mental Illness,

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