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What Causes Mental Illness and Can It Be Prevented?

Causes Mental Illness

Generally speaking, mental illness refers to a huge range of conditions that can impact someone’s behaviors, moods and thoughts. Some mental health disorders are temporary and mild, while others can be chronic and severe. For some people, mental health is not something that they have to work to maintain, but for some it can be a lifelong challenge that requires constant effort and attention.

In many cases, mental illness can negatively impact an individual’s life, as well as the lives of those with whom he or she interacts. It may make daily tasks, relationships and normal functioning difficult or even impossible. When signs and symptoms appear, it is important to reach out for help, as therapy and/or medications can be a pathway to wellness for many people. Interested in what causes mental illness and whether or not it can be prevented? Read on for more information.

What Causes Mental Health Illness?

While the exact cause of mental illness is not completely understood and can be extremely difficult to pin down, there are some factors that may play a role in whether or not someone develops a mental health condition. Keep in mind that everyone is different and may not develop mental illness even if they have the following risk factors.


The research is still out on whether or not genetics are completely to blame when it comes to mental illness, but family history is a contributing risk factor for many individuals. Some experts believe that mental illness may be linked to abnormalities in several different genes rather than just one single gene. How those genes interact with other life factors, such as trauma or stress, may be what triggers mental illness in someone who has inherited susceptibility.

Brain Chemistry

Everyone has neurotransmitters which are chemicals in the brain that are responsible for carrying messages to the body and within the brain. An imbalance in these chemicals can reduce the function of the brain and may be the cause of some mental conditions. For example, people with depression may be lacking one or more of the following three neurotransmitters: dopamine, norepinephrine or serotonin. Medications that can treat depression often work by rebalancing these chemicals in the brain, often by supplementing a synthetic version.

Environmental Exposures

Mental health evironmental exposuresBabies in the womb who are exposed to toxins, drugs, alcohol or other environmental stressors may be at an increased risk of developing mental illness. If a baby’s brain development is disrupted by one or more of the previously mentioned substances or even a loss of oxygen, it may prevent normal brain development and lead to mental health issues down the road.

Substance Abuse

Drugs and alcohol are known to cause plenty of issues for users, but long-term dependency can cause the development of mental health disorders. For example, long-term abuse has been shown to cause depression, paranoia and anxiety in some people. Someone who is already at risk for mental illness, perhaps due to family history, may find that a condition is triggered by substance abuse.

Brain Injury

The relationship between a traumatic brain injury (TBI) and mental illness is very complex, but there is sometimes a connection. When someone experiences a TBI, he or she may suffer from debilitating symptoms that follow, including dizziness, pain and changes in mood. There may also be a development of depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), though that may be caused by emotions related to the experience itself or the loss of lifestyle rather than the injury to the brain.

Childhood Trauma

Unfortunately, things that occurred when someone was a child may have an impact later in life, even if he or she is away from that stressful environment. Childhood physical, emotional or sexual abuse has been linked to mental illness and may play a role in whether or not a disorder develops later on.

Current Environment

The environment in which someone lives can also play a role in developing mental illness. High-stress living situations, such as poverty or an abusive home life, can be a trigger for many people.

Can Mental Health Illness Be Prevented?

With these contributing factors in mind, you may be wondering if it is possible to prevent mental illness. After all, most of these risk factors are outside of an individual’s control and everyone will react differently. Preventing mental health problems from developing, from getting worse or from coming back is the goal for many people.

In many cases, complete prevention is not possible once mental health conditions have already started to develop. However, there are a few things that can be done to try and prevent a mental illness from completely overtaking a person’s life, or at least to try to stop it from recurring if possible.

Primary Prevention

In order to stop mental illness before it starts, primary prevention is key. This method focuses on raising awareness and promoting good mental health for the entire community. For example, schools that implement mental wellness education teach early on how important it is to take care of all aspects of an individual’s well-being. Other examples may include suicide prevention education, anti-stigma campaigns or self-care training. The hope is that primary prevention can help those who are already at risk reach out before mental illness becomes a bigger concern in their lives.

Secondary Prevention

Those who are at a higher risk for developing mental health conditions need support and that comes in the form of secondary prevention. They may have been born into circumstances that place them at a higher risk or they may have had life experiences that could lead in that direction. For example, supporting those in the LGBTQ+ community may prevent those individuals from feeling alone or isolated, which could lead to mental illness.

Tertiary Prevention

Metal health tertiary preventionIf someone has already experienced mental illness, all hope is not loss for future prevention. This method is designed to help mentally ill individuals maintain mental well-being and enjoy quality of life, even when dealing with chronic conditions. This typically involves assistance with alleviating symptoms, improving overall wellness and reducing recurrence of crisis situations, when possible.

Mental Wellness Tips

For most people, preventing mental illness means improving and maintaining overall wellness through healthy lifestyle decisions. This may not always be enough to completely avoid mental health issues, especially if there are already several risk factors at play, but it can be a good way to put preventative measures in place that can be accessed, no matter one’s mental state.

  • Talk to someone. If possible, find a therapist who you feel comfortable working with. This can provide you with the support you need to feel less alone.
  • Eat as well as possible. Aim for a nutritious, balanced diet as often as possible.
  • Improve your sleep. Try to get at least seven to eight hours of sleep a night. Poor sleeping habits are linked to mental illness.
  • Stay active. You don’t have to grind it out at the gym every day, but moving your body is good for your mind.
  • Reach out to friends. Build a support system and provide that same support for others.
  • Practice mindfulness. Focus on being present and engaged with each moment.
  • Give service. Look outside of yourself for others who may need your help.

These small, everyday practices can give you a feeling of control over your mind and body, even if you’re currently struggling with your mental health.

Let Davis Behavioral Health Help

Want to learn more about mental health or find help for yourself or someone you love? Contact Davis Behavioral Health today. We offer a range of services for Davis County residents of all ages, including therapy, groups and classes. Good mental health is important for individuals, but it also impacts families, communities and society as a whole. Gain a better understanding of your own mental well-being and find out how you can help others who may be struggling.