Causes and Risk Factors of Mental Illness

Nearly everyone has mental health concerns at some point or another. However, people who suffer from mental illness experience ongoing symptoms that cause difficulties in their daily lives. Mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia affect mood, thinking, and behaviors. Although there is no single cause of mental illness, there are several risk factors and causes that increase a person’s risk of developing a mental health condition.

Even though the exact causes of mental illness are unknown, experts have evidence that many mental health conditions are caused by a combination of biological, environmental, and psychological factors. Understanding why these factors contribute to mental illness is a key component of a successful treatment plan.

Biological Causes of Mental Illness

Many mental health conditions are linked to abnormal nerve cell functioning in the brain. Nerve cell pathways communicate using neurotransmitters – chemicals that regulate mood and other thought processes. Areas of the brain that don’t produce these chemicals correctly could be linked to certain mental health conditions, such as depression or bipolar disorder.

In addition to impaired brain chemistry, some mental illnesses are thought to be hereditary. To explain, people who have a family member or close relative with a mental health condition are more likely to develop a mental illness themselves. Disorders that are thought to be genetic include:

  • Bipolar disorder
  • Major depression
  • Schizophrenia
  • Autism
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)

According to WebMD, experts believe that many mental illnesses are linked to multiple gene abnormalities and how these genes interact with a person’s environment. On the other hand, exposure to drugs or alcohol in the womb also affects a child’s brain chemistry in the womb, so having a mother who used drugs or alcohol during her pregnancy increases the risk of mental illness. However, other biological factors, such as long-term substance abuse, exposure to toxins, and even poor nutrition can all be causes of mental illness.[1]

Environmental Risk Factors

A person’s surroundings have a huge impact in their developmental and cognitive processes. As a result, a person’s home, neighborhood, class status, family, friends, and even their job can have serious impacts on the quality of their mental health. In addition to genetic and biological factors, there are environmental aspects that can increase a person’s risk of developing a mental health condition. For example:

  • Stress coming from death, divorce, job changes, relocation, etc, can trigger symptoms in a person who is already susceptible to mental illness
  • Growing up in a dysfunctional home can lead to unhealthy coping mechanisms and mental health conditions
  • Experiencing lingering feelings of anger, loneliness, low self-esteem, or inadequacy can all increase the risk of mental illness
  • Feeling pressure to meet social or cultural expectations could lead to the development of a mental health condition
  • Growing up in a home with parents who suffer from mental illness or addiction is a potential cause of mental illness

When environmental risk factors are combined with biological or psychological ones, it makes a person increasingly susceptible to the development of an array of disorders, including depression, anxiety, PTSD, and bipolar disorder.[2]

Psychological/Emotional Factors

Events that affect the human psyche have a huge influence on the way people react to events, behave in certain situations, and even view the world around them. As a result, psychological or emotional factors are another common contributing cause of mental illness. Some psychological factors that are known to increase the risk of mental illness are:

  • Childhood trauma, ranging from emotional, physical, or sexual abuse to neglect or exposure to a traumatic event
  • Losing a loved one, such as a parent, child, or partner
  • Having an existing personality disorder, for example, people with a borderline personality disorder or narcissistic personality disorder are more prone to mental illness
  • Going through a chronic medical condition like cancer or diabetes
  • Having trouble developing or maintaining healthy and long-term relationships, resulting in isolation and loneliness

Many people experience at least one of the above risk factors in their lifetimes, but this doesn’t mean they will all develop a mental health condition. There are many factors that come into play, which is why it is important to never self-diagnose. If you believe you may have a mental health condition, speak to a licensed mental health professional immediately.

Treating the Underlying Causes of Mental Illness

Mental illness is common, as nearly 25% of adults experience a mental health condition each year. If someone is experiencing symptoms, they should undergo a physical, medical, and psychological evaluation in order to obtain a diagnosis. However, getting a diagnosis is only the first step.

It’s important to understand the causes and risk factors of mental illness because that is the key to successful treatment. While many medications are available for treatment, they are most effective when paired when behavioral therapies that treat the root causes. By identifying why a person has a mental health condition and what situations trigger their symptoms, patients can learn how to effectively manage and treat their condition.

Although there is no cure for mental illness, treatment is highly effective when patients adhere to their treatment regimen. However, if you wait to seek help until your symptoms worsen, it can be difficult to see treatment results quickly. Both dedication and long-term maintenance are required for successful mental health treatment.

Coping with mental illness isn’t easy, but you don’t have to do it alone. Whether you’re looking to have your voice be heard or are in need of professional help, we’ve got you covered. Reach out today to see how we can help you.



Medically Reviewed: September 25, 2019

Dr Ashley

Cayla Clark, BA

Medical Reviewer

Chief Editor

All of the information on this page has been reviewed and verified by a certified addiction professional.

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Dr Ashley Murray obtained her MBBCh Cum Laude in 2016. She currently practices in the public domain in South Africa. She has an interest in medical writing and has a keen interest in evidence-based medicine.

All of the information on this page has been reviewed and verified by a certified addiction professional.