What causes mental illness?


Mental illness
Mental illness

How common are mental illnesses in the UK?

  • Anxiety will affect 10% of the population
  • Bipolar disorder will affect one in 100
  • One in every 150 15-year-old girls will get anorexia, and one in every 1000 15-year-old boys
  • 20% of people will become depressed at some point in their lives
  • OCD will affect 2%
  • Personality disorder will affect one in 10, though for some it won’t be severe
  • Schizophrenia will affect one in 100

Source: Royal College of Psychiatrists

The exact cause of most mental illnesses is not known but a combination of physical, psychological and environmental factors are thought to play a role.

Many mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder can run in families, which suggests a genetic link. Experts believe many mental illnesses are linked to abnormalities in several genes that predispose people to problems, but don’t on their own directly cause them. So a person can inherit a susceptibility to a condition but may not go on to develop it.

Psychological risk factors that make a person more vulnerable include suffering, neglect, loss of a parent, or experiencing abuse.

Difficult life events can then trigger a mental illness in a person who is susceptible. These stressors include illness, divorce, death of a loved one, losing a job, substance abuse, social expectations and a dysfunctional family life.

When is someone thought to be mentally ill?

A mental illness can not be ‘tested’ by checking blood or body fluids. Instead it is diagnosed, usually by an experienced psychiatrist or clinical psychologist, after studying a patient’s symptoms and monitoring them over a period of time.

How ICD-10 classifies bipolar affective disorder:

‘A disorder characterized by two or more episodes in which the patient’s mood and activity levels are significantly disturbed, this disturbance consisting on some occasions of an elevation of mood and increased energy and activity (hypomania or mania) and on others of a lowering of mood and decreased energy and activity (depression). ‘

Many different mental illnesses can have overlapping symptoms, so it can be difficult to tell the conditions apart.

To diagnose a mental health condition, psychiatrists in the UK may refer to the World Health Organisation’s International Classification of Diseases (ICD) system. This lists known mental health problems and their symptoms under various sub-categories. It is updated around every 15 years.

Some experts argue that the current system relies too strongly on medical approaches for mental health problems. They say it implies the roots of emotional distress are simply in brain abnormalities and underplay the social and psychological causes of distress.

They argue that this leads to a reliance on anti-depressants and anti-psychotic drugs despite known significant side-effects and poor evidence of their effectiveness.

New research provides the strongest evidence to date that psychopathy is linked to specific structural abnormalities in the brain. The study, led by researchers at King’s College London Institute of Psychiatry (IoP) is the first to confirm that psychopathy is a distinct neuro-developmental sub-group of anti-social personality disorder (ASPD).


It seems that there is still a lot of disagreement between the causes of mental illness and a holistic approach, along with informing yourself as much as possible is the safest way to proceed.

Mandy X




Source:  http://www.bbc.co.uk/science/0/22028518