Boots WebMD Partners in Health
Return To Boots

Mental health centre

Causes of mental illness

It is not always clear why a person develops a mental health condition, such as depression or anxiety disorder. However, experts believe a combination of biological, inherited, psychological, and environmental factors play a part.

Mental health conditions affect a person's family and work life and relationships. Mental health is also linked to physical health.

What biological factors are involved in mental illness?

Some mental illnesses have been linked to an abnormal balance of special chemicals in the brain called neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters help nerve cells in the brain communicate with each other. If these chemicals are out of balance or are not working properly, messages may not make it through the brain correctly, leading to symptoms of mental illness. In addition, defects in, or injury to, certain areas of the brain have also been linked to some mental health conditions.

Other biological factors that may be involved in the development of mental illness include:

  • Genetics (heredity): Many mental illnesses run in families, suggesting that people who have a family member with a mental illness are more likely to develop a mental illness. Susceptibility is passed on in families through genes. Experts believe many mental illnesses are linked to abnormalities in many genes - not just one. That is why a person inherits a susceptibility to a mental illness and doesn't necessarily develop the illness. Mental illness itself occurs from the interaction of multiple genes and other factors - such as stress, abuse, or a traumatic event - which can influence, or trigger, an illness in a person who has an inherited susceptibility to it.
  • Infections: Certain infections have been linked to brain damage and the development of mental illness or the worsening of its symptoms. For example, a condition known as paediatric autoimmune neuropsychiatric disorder associated with the Streptococcus bacteria (PANDAS) has been linked to the development of obsessive-compulsive disorder and other mental illnesses in children.
  • Brain defects or injury: Defects in or injury to certain areas of the brain have also been linked to some mental illnesses.
  • Prenatal damage: Some evidence suggests that a disruption of early foetal brain development or trauma that occurs at the time of birth - for example, loss of oxygen to the brain - may be a factor in the development of certain conditions, such as autism.
  • Substance abuse: Long-term substance abuse, in particular, has been linked to anxiety, depression, and paranoia.
  • Other factors: Poor nutrition and exposure to toxins such as lead, may play a role in the development of mental illnesses.

What psychological factors contribute to mental illness?

Psychological factors that may contribute to mental illness include:

  • Severe psychological trauma suffered as a child, such as emotional, physical, or sexual abuse
  • An important early loss, such as the loss of a parent
  • Neglect
  • Poor ability to relate to others

What environmental factors contribute to mental illness?

Certain factors causing stress can trigger an illness in a person who is susceptible to mental illness. These include:

  • Death or divorce
  • A dysfunctional family life
  • Living in poverty
  • Feelings of inadequacy, low self-esteem, anxiety, anger, or loneliness
  • Changing jobs or schools
  • Social or cultural expectations - for example, a society that associates beauty with thinness can be a factor in the development of eating disorders.
  • Substance abuse by the person or the person's parents

WebMD Medical Reference

Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks on November 02, 2017

Popular slideshows & tools on BootsWebMD

How to help headache pain
rash on skin
Top eczema triggers to avoid
Causes of fatigue & how to fight it
Tips to support digestive health
woman looking at pregnancy test
Is your body ready for pregnancy?
woman sleeping
Sleep better tonight
Treating your child's cold or fever
fifth disease
Illnesses every parent should know
spoonfull of sugar
Surprising things that harm your liver
woman holding stomach
Understand this common condition
What your nails say about your health