And Others Don’t?
Mental health is undoubtedly complex, but mental health problems affect many people worldwide. Research shows that approximately one in five Americans (and one in six children) experiences mental illness.
But what explains why some people have difficulties and others don’t? Is it a matter of genetics? Environment? Access to treatment? Personality differences? Let’s explore the main variables.
What Really Causes Mental Health Problems?
There isn’t a single contributing factor that causes mental illness. Instead, it appears that a cluster of risk factors can increase someone’s likelihood of developing conditions like depression, anxiety, or personality disorders.
That said, it’s important to note that the presence of such risk factors also doesn’t cause mental illness. Instead, they simply tend to be more prominent.
Researchers have long examined the impact of neurobiology and its role in mental health. We know that chemical imbalances are closely related to numerous conditions. For instance, studies show that people with depression often have lower levels of serotonin and dopamine. Similarly, people with anxiety may have disruptions with their norepinephrine and GABA levels.
While research is growing and shows fascinating results, neurobiology is still a relatively new science. It is quite possible that this field will continue emerging- in later decades and centuries, we will likely have far more information about the role body chemistry plays in mental health.
That said, chemical imbalances offer some explanation as to why psychiatric medication can be so effective. Because medications improve communication between neurotransmitters, people often experience a significant symptom reduction. Even though medicine doesn’t “cure” mental illness, it can provide immense relief.
Mental illness can run in families. This phenomenon explains why it’s common to see people with certain conditions who have family members with the same conditions. For instance, the lifetime chance of developing bipolar is 1 in 100. But if both parents have bipolar disorder, the risk jumps to 40 in 100.
Some of this generational passing may be genetic, but environmental factors may also be at play. For example, a parent who struggles with their mental health may not be able to successfully attune to their child’s needs. In addition, they might face physical, emotional, or financial issues that affect their children.
These patterns can be impressionable. After all, the family system serves as the primary template for “how the world works.” Children learn from their parents, and mental health messages can inadvertently pass down through the generations.
With that in mind, just because a parent struggles with their mental health, it doesn’t automatically mean their children will experience those same struggles. Early prevention and treatment may offset some of the risks.
Childhood trauma, in particular, poses a significant threat to one’s emotional well-being. Children are helpless and dependent on others to ensure their basic needs are met. If they face abuse, neglect, or abandonment, those experiences can undoubtedly alter their development.
That said, it isn’t nearly as simple as saying trauma causes mental illness. However, trauma can fundamentally impact the brain and compromise someone’s baseline of safety. Moreover, traumatic experiences are often associated with other complex issues, like medical problems, poverty or financial distress, significant family ruptures, or impacts on self-esteem.
Unresolved trauma can certainly trigger problematic mental health symptoms like:
- Emotional dysregulation.
- Withdrawal and avoidance.
- Escape behaviors (substance use, unsafe sex practices, overeating).
- Aggression and violence.
- Suicidal thoughts.
Over time, these symptoms can intensify and contribute to (or aggravate) preexisting mental health issues. Even if the trauma happened many years ago, the impact could still be profound.
Other Mental Illnesses
Many mental illnesses are interconnected, and it’s fairly typical for people to meet the criteria for several disorders at the same time. For instance, the majority of individuals with a substance use disorder also experience illnesses like depression, anxiety, or PTSD.
One mental illness likely doesn’t cause another one. However, symptoms can overlap, and untreated issues may exacerbate other problems. For instance, someone with depression may think poorly about themselves and believe they are unlovable. They might assume that losing weight will make them more attractive and likable. However, they may use dangerous methods to lose weight, which can correlate with an eating disorder.
The mind and body are intricately connected, and physical issues can significantly impact one’s mental health.
Brain injuries, in particular, may be correlated with mental illness. The brain acts as the central powerhouse for how we think, feel, and behave. Therefore, a traumatic brain injury can impact everything from mood to sleep to impulse control. Subsequently, these injuries may trigger or exaggerate mental health issues.
Chronic pain and issues like depression and anxiety often go hand-in-hand. Because the pain can feel so uncomfortable and take such a toll on one’s life, it can certainly worsen someone’s mental health.
Other medical issues that may affect mental health include:
- Prenatal damage.
- Brain defects.
- Serious, life-threatening infections.
- Traumatic medical experiences (stroke, heart attacks, cancer).
Even if they don’t inherently qualify as traumatic episodes, repeated stress can affect one’s emotional well-being. Stress, of course, is a part of life. But elevated stress levels- particularly when it comes to stress with no actual resolution- can cause mental health problems.
Some examples of high-stress situations include:
- Chronic grief (experiencing many deaths sequentially)
- Divorce or serious relationship issues.
- Unemployment or difficulties with work.
- Academic problems.
- Ongoing social/cultural oppression.
- Family dysfunction.
Ongoing stress can make it challenging to take care of yourself. If you feel depleted by the events happening in your life, it’s hard to prioritize self-care or quality relationships. You may feel tempted by “quick fixes” that temporarily feel good- but don’t actually fix the stress itself. As a result, your mental health may suffer.
What Are The Protective Measures Against Mental Illness Struggles?
People can come from very similar circumstances, but their mental health may look entirely different. What explains the variations? Do some people simply have more willpower than others? Are they luckier? Let’s dive in.
Higher Levels of Resilience
Life can be inherently traumatic, and some people face immense adversity in their everyday routine. And yet, hardship alone does not mean someone is doomed to struggle with their mental health.
Resilience is a strong protective measure in adapting, integrating, and healing from traumatic experiences. Resilience refers to the ability to cope with distress. It doesn’t mean eliminating the “bad things.” Instead, it means strengthening your ability to respond to them favorably.
Resilient people tend to:
- Be solution-oriented.
- Focus on building and maintaining a positive support system.
- Practice gratitude regularly.
- Integrate stress management and relaxation strategies in their daily routines.
- Practice themes of acceptance for what life is (and what life isn’t).
Some people may appear to have a natural sense of resilience. But resilience can also be cultivated and learned. Like a muscle, you can strengthen it with the right activities.
Close, Healthy Relationships
While love alone cannot fix one’s mental health, having support is an integral part of our emotional well-being. After all, we are social creatures- we were never meant to live or thrive in isolation. We need other people to teach, guide, and help us.
People who have healthy, supportive relationships tend to have better mental health than those who don’t. In fact, when examining happiness, researchers find that companionship- above money and health- is most closely related to joy.
With that in mind, relationships are two-way streets. If you aren’t a good friend to others, you probably won’t have many good friends yourself. So good relationships start with you prioritizing being the type of companion you wish to have.
Being a good source of support includes:
- Maintaining and respecting other people’s boundaries.
- Practicing active listening.
- Showing compassion and curiosity for your differences.
- Offering support in ways they need.
Keep in mind that toxic relationships can have the opposite effect on your mental health. For example, if you are close to people who don’t treat you well, you will likely feel angry, upset, or resentful. Over time, these feelings can wreak havoc on your well-being.
Although it may seem counterintuitive, focusing on how you can give to others may be one of the best protective measures for your mental health. People who give back, engage in random acts of kindness, and strive to share their resources are often happier than those who don’t. This happiness applies regardless of socioeconomic status, age, or sex.
Giving to others makes us feel happy ourselves. Donating to charity, for example, actives the reward systems associated with pleasure and social connection. Some people deem this effect as the “helper’s high.”
In addition, prosocial behavior strengthens internal gratitude. Of course, we know the benefits of “counting our blessings.” But actually being able to support, share, and give to others keeps our own fortunes in perspective.
Finally, prosocial behavior often triggers a domino effect. When you give to others, they tend to feel happy and appreciated. This, in turn, makes you feel happy and appreciated. As a result, you’re likely to continue engaging in that behavior again. However, they are also more likely to want to give to others in a similar fashion.
Taking ownership over your mental health is an essential protective measure for treating your mental health. While it’s normal to feel frustrated or upset at your parents or life circumstances, dwelling on these risk factors won’t actually change how you feel.
Personal accountability means assuming responsibility for your thoughts and actions. It means being willing to own up to your mistakes and take positive action when needed. Blaming others, playing the victim, avoiding the problem, or trying to escape reality only perpetuates more suffering.
You can strengthen your sense of personal accountability by:
- Making a genuine effort to identify and sit with your emotions.
- Acknowledging wrongdoings to others as quickly as possible.
- Owning your mistakes and recognizing that mistakes are inevitable.
- Seeking solutions for problems.
- Validating and affirming yourself instead of depending on others.
- Practicing more self-care to manage your stress levels.
- Creating and implementing boundaries for yourself.
It’s easy to get upset at others or feel like the world is against you. At times, people may hurt you, and that can certainly feel unfair. But nobody is responsible for your happiness or well-being. It’s your job to nurture and take care of yourself.
Appropriate Interventions and Treatment
Despite an optimal mindset and the desire to integrate effective self-care, many people need professional guidance in managing their mental health. There is no shame in seeking therapy or starting medication. However, waiting too long (or avoiding it altogether) can cause excess suffering.
Just as we would urge a loved one to go to the hospital for a broken bone, we should encourage ourselves and others to ask for help for mental health issues. The destigmatizing of such treatment strengthens our communities and promotes emotional well-being for everyone.
Moreover, the research shows that psychotherapy and medication work. Therapists are trained in assessing, treating, and supporting mental health issues. They provide support and compassion for people who often feel alone in their struggles.
It’s important that you find a comprehensive treatment plan that works for you. No two mental health issues are exactly alike, and it can take time to find the right provider. Try to stay open and curious about the process- there are many people who want to help you, but it’s critical that you remain receptive to being helped.
Comparing yourself to others will often feel like a losing battle. It isn’t your fault that you struggle with your mental health, but it is your responsibility to take care of yourself. Identifying the key problems, asking for help, and integrating new ways to cope with your mental health can make a tremendous difference in how you feel.