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What Causes Mental Illness?

Mental health is a crucial aspect of our daily lives, affecting everything from our work and school responsibilities to the quality of our relationships. It encompasses our emotions and thoughts, ability to communicate, learn, bounce back from challenges, and ability to maintain hope and see ourselves positively. On the other hand, mental illness refers to conditions that cause significant changes in our thoughts, feelings, or behaviors, leading to distress and difficulties in our social, work, or family lives.

Mental health disorders are common in the United States, with an estimated 1 in 5 adults and 13-20% of children experiencing them each year [5]. Serious mental illness affects about 4.1% of adults, while 8.5% are diagnosed with substance use disorders [1]. This article seeks to explore different types of mental health disorders, their causes, and available treatment options to provide a comprehensive understanding of the complex issues surrounding mental health and mental health disorders

Types of Mental Health Disorders

Mental health disorders, also known as mental illnesses or psychiatric disorders, encompass a wide range of conditions that affect mood, emotions, thinking, and behavior [1]. There are many types of mental health disorders, each with its own unique symptoms and treatment approaches.

Some common mental health disorders include:

Anxiety Disorders

Anxiety disorders are a group of mental health conditions characterized by excessive and persistent feelings of fear, worry, and apprehension [2].

They often involve both psychological and physiological symptoms, such as increased heart rate, sweating, and trembling  [2]. Anxiety is closely related to fear and involves anticipation of future threats or dangers [2].

Types of anxiety disorders include [2]:

  • Separation Anxiety Disorder
  • Selective Mutism
  • Specific Phobia
  • Social Anxiety Disorder
  • Panic Disorder
  • Agoraphobia
  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder
  • Substance/Medication-Induced

Mood disorders

Mood disorders encompass a range of mental health conditions that significantly impact emotions and behaviors [8]. They disrupt the normal regulation of moods, resulting in intense emotional states such as depression or mania, which can profoundly affect daily functioning [8].

Key examples include bipolar disorder and major depressive disorder, each characterized by distinct mood disturbances and associated symptoms [8]:

Other common types of mood disorders include:

Psychotic Disorders

Psychotic disorders cover a variety of mental health conditions marked by severe disruptions in thinking and perception [3].

Some common examples of psychotic disorders include schizophrenia, where people have trouble distinguishing reality; schizoaffective disorder, which mixes symptoms of schizophrenia with mood swings; and mood disorders like depression or bipolar disorder, which can also include psychotic symptoms [3].

Neurodevelopmental Disorders

Neurodevelopmental disorders (NDDs) are a group of conditions that affect brain development during childhood, leading to impairments in various aspects of functioning.

These disorders typically manifest early in life and include  [6]:

Factors Contributing to Mental Illness

Mental illness is caused by many factors, such as biological, environmental, social, and others; let’s examine the causes and risk factors in more detail.

Environmental Factors

Environmental influences, including experiences during childhood, such as abuse or neglect, play a significant role in shaping mental health [13]. Epigenetic research highlights how these experiences can alter gene expression and increase susceptibility to mental illness later in life [13].

Additionally, stressful life events, socioeconomic status, and access to resources contribute to mental health outcomes [13]. Various environmental exposures, such as urban upbringing, childhood maltreatment, and substance use, occur at different stages of life and can affect the likelihood of developing multiple mental disorders [12].

Brain chemistry and structure

Mental illnesses can stem from various factors, including imbalances in neurotransmitters, abnormal brain structure, and disruptions in brain circuitry. For instance, alterations in serotonin, dopamine, and other neurotransmitters have been linked to conditions such as depression and schizophrenia [11].

Neurobiological research indicates that depression may involve the shrinking or degeneration (atrophy) of neurons in some regions of the brain. Additionally, disruptions in how different parts of the brain communicate (brain connectivity) and function as a network may occur. Similarly, in schizophrenia, there is a decrease in the activity of a specific type of neurotransmitter called GABA, along with an increase in the production of another neurotransmitter called dopamine. These changes can result in abnormalities in the function of dopamine receptors both before and after the release of dopamine at synapses (the junctions between nerve cells). These complex findings highlight the intricate relationship between the chemical makeup of the brain, its structure, and the development of mental illnesses.

Biological Causes

Most mental illnesses often arise from a blend of genetic predisposition and environmental factors [9]. Although the precise genetic roots remain complex, specific genes and variations can heighten the risk of conditions like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and depression, particularly if a family member has a diagnosis [9]. Additionally, changes in genes after birth, along with interactions with the environment, can also contribute to mental illness [9]. Neurodiversity, encompassing conditions like ADHD and autism spectrum disorder, is influenced by genetic factors and can impact mental health. Similarly, sensory processing sensitivity, which involves heightened responsiveness to stimuli, is moderately inheritable and can lead to stress-related disorders [9].

Genetic factors

Inheritable traits and genetic variations are important factors in determining susceptibility to mental illnesses, but environmental factors also play a significant role. Certain mental illnesses tend to run in families, indicating a genetic predisposition. However, having a genetic predisposition does not necessarily guarantee poor mental health or the development of a mental illness.

Research into genetics and neuroimaging has provided crucial insights into the biological basis of mental illnesses [13]. For instance, imaging scans have shown clear-cut structural and functional abnormalities in certain disorders like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and autism [13]. Furthermore, studies have identified specific genes associated with schizophrenia and other mental disorders [13].

Psychological Causes

Psychological factors significantly influence mental health. Perfectionism, characterized by excessively high standards and critical self-evaluation, can lead to anxiety, depression, and other disorders [9]. Self-esteem, shaped partly by genetic factors, plays a crucial role in psychological well-being [9].

Personality traits, as outlined by the Big Five model, influence susceptibility to mental health problems and disorders; for instance, neuroticism is strongly associated with anxiety and depression [9]. Additionally, optimism, or the tendency to anticipate positive outcomes, can affect mental health outcomes, with optimists typically exhibiting better coping mechanisms [10].

Stressful life events, unresolved trauma, and maladaptive thought patterns are identified as psychological stressors that can contribute to the onset or exacerbation of mental health issues [4]. Individual experiences and coping mechanisms play a crucial role in shaping mental health outcomes and the development of mental disorders [4].

Sociocultural Causes

Sociocultural Causes: Sociocultural factors play a significant role in mental health. They include societal attitudes, cultural norms, and stigma surrounding mental illness. Lack of access to mental health resources and cultural beliefs about mental health also contribute to shaping an individual’s experience of mental illness  [4]. These influences impact how mental health issues are perceived and addressed within communities [4].

Impact of Social Media

Heavy use of social media platforms has been linked to negative mental health outcomes, including anxiety, depression, loneliness, and self-harm [10]. Cyberbullying, facilitated by social media, poses a particular risk [10].

Substance abuse

Substance abuse, like excessive alcohol consumption or illicit drug use, is closely linked to the development of mental illness. This connection is particularly evident among adolescents, where early drug use often coincides with the onset of mental health disorders.

Research shows that over 60% of adolescents receiving treatment for substance use disorders also meet the criteria for other mental illnesses [7]. Additionally, adults with mental, personality, or substance use disorders are at a heightened risk for misusing prescription opioids [7]. Moreover, individuals with a seriously debilitating mental illness, such as major depression or bipolar disorder, are significantly more likely to have co-occurring substance use disorders [7]. This reciprocal relationship between substance abuse and mental illness underscores the importance of addressing both issues simultaneously to improve overall well-being and quality of life.

Treatment of Mental Disorders

Dealing with mental health disorders can be challenging, as they often affect various aspects of our lives, from our relationships to our performance at work or school. However, there are numerous treatment options available to manage and alleviate symptoms of different mental health disorders. These options may include several treatment options such as medications, Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS), psychotherapy, or a combination thereof.

While primary care physicians can address some symptoms, seeking assistance from a qualified mental health professional, particularly a psychiatrist, is advisable. Psychiatrists are medical doctors specializing in mental health, possessing the expertise to diagnose, treat, and manage a wide range of mental health disorders. With their extensive training and experience, they can provide comprehensive evaluations, personalized treatment plans, and ongoing support tailored to each individual’s unique needs.

When seeking treatment for mental health concerns, individuals have a multitude of options available to them. Psychiatrists can help explore these options and identify the most effective approach for the individual’s circumstances. Through collaboration with a psychiatrist, individuals can access the tools and resources necessary to improve their mental health and overall well-being. Moreover, psychiatrists have access to various treatment modalities, including medication management, psychotherapy, and other evidence-based interventions. By working together with a psychiatrist, individuals can explore different treatment options and determine the approach that best suits their needs.

Professional Help and Support

Understanding mental health disorders and their causes is crucial for effectively supporting individuals experiencing challenges. By exploring a range of factors that contribute to mental illness, including genetics and environmental influences, we can enhance our ability to address and manage these conditions effectively.

If you or someone you know has a mental health disorder or is exhibiting symptoms, it’s important to seek professional help to explore all the available treatment options, including medication and therapy. By working alongside mental health professionals, especially psychiatrists, a personalized treatment plan can be developed to improve outcomes. Prioritizing mental health awareness and access to comprehensive care is crucial in promoting resilience and enhancing the overall quality of life.

Discover compassionate care and personalized treatment plans for mental health disorders at Neuro Wellness Spa. Our dedicated team of caring healthcare professionals, including trained mental health professionals and experienced psychiatrists, are here to support you on your journey to wellness. Take the first step towards improved well-being and schedule your appointment with one of our in-person or online psychiatrists today.


  1. American Psychiatric Association. What is Mental Illness?
  2. Chand SP, Marwaha R. Anxiety. [Updated 2023 Apr 24]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2024 Jan-. Available from:
  3. Lieberman, J. A., & First, M. B. (2018). Psychotic Disorders. The New England journal of medicine, 379(3), 270–280.
  4. Malla, A., Joober, R., & Garcia, A. (2015). “Mental illness is like any other medical illness”: a critical examination of the statement and its impact on patient care and society. Journal of psychiatry & neuroscience: JPN, 40(3), 147–150.
  5. Mental Health America. Finding Help: When to Get it and Where to Go.
  6. Morris-Rosendahl, D. J., & Crocq, M. A. (2020). Neurodevelopmental disorders-the history and future of a diagnostic concept
. Dialogues in clinical neuroscience, 22(1), 65–72.
  7. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Part 1: The Connection Between Substance Use Disorders and Mental Illness.
  8. Sekhon S, Gupta V. Mood Disorder. [Updated 2023 May 8]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2024 Jan-. Available from:
  9. Stoewen D. L. (2022). Nature, nurture, and mental health Part 1: The influence of genetics, psychology, and biology. The Canadian veterinary journal = La revue veterinaire canadienne, 63(4), 427–430.
  10. Stoewen D. L. (2022). Nature, nurture, and mental health. Part 2: The influence of life experience. The Canadian veterinary journal = La revue veterinaire canadienne, 63(6), 643–645.
  11. Teleanu, R. I., Niculescu, A. G., Roza, E., Vladâcenco, O., Grumezescu, A. M., & Teleanu, D. M. (2022). Neurotransmitters-Key Factors in Neurological and Neurodegenerative Disorders of the Central Nervous System. International journal of molecular sciences, 23(11), 5954.
  12. Uher, R., & Zwicker, A. (2017). Etiology in psychiatry: embracing the reality of poly-gene-environmental causation of mental illness. World psychiatry: official journal of the World Psychiatric Association (WPA), 16(2), 121–129.
  13. Weir, K. (2012, June 1). The roots of mental illness. Monitor on Psychology, 43(6).
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