Most mental health conditions don’t have a single cause – they have many possible causes, called risk factors. The more risk factors you have, the more likely you are to develop a mental health condition in your lifetime. Mental health conditions can develop slowly, or symptoms can start to appear more suddenly after you’ve experienced a stressful event or big change.
Risk factors don’t just affect who will and won’t develop a mental health condition. They also impact the seriousness of symptoms and when those symptoms will show up. There are several risk factors, including:
Social Determinants of Health (SDOH)
SDOH are the conditions in which people live, learn, work, and play that impact their health and quality of life. There are five main categories – financial stability, education access and quality, health care access and quality, neighborhood and living environment, and social and community life.
- High poverty neighborhoods can cause stress, weaken healthy social connections, and harm the overall mental health of the people who live there, even when controlling for individual poverty.[i]
Any experience that was highly stressful, shocking, or dangerous to you can be traumatic. Trauma is different for everyone – what feels normal to someone else might be traumatic to you, and vice versa. A traumatic event can threaten your physical safety (like being in a car accident), or it can be more emotional (like the sudden death of a loved one). Traumatic experiences can be one-time events (like getting in a fight) or ongoing (like bullying or childhood neglect). Situations like loneliness, seeing an accident, natural disasters, poverty, and racism can all cause a trauma response.
- Children who experience trauma are approximately 1.3 times more likely to develop a mental health condition as adults than children who don’t experience trauma.[ii]
Your genes are passed down from your parents and ancestors. They act as the blueprint for how your body and brain develop and function. There’s no one gene that decides if you’ll have a mental health condition. Instead, many genes affect the way your brain develops, making you more or less likely to develop a mental health condition later.
- Studies have found children of parents with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) to be 2-6 times as likely as other children to receive a GAD diagnosis.[iii]
Biology and Brain Chemistry
Some brains are wired differently, have too high or too low levels of certain neurotransmitters (chemicals that carry messages throughout your brain), or are damaged after a head injury. Abnormalities in the prefrontal cortex, frontal cortex, and other parts of the brain can also increase your chances of developing a mental health condition.
- The brain chemical dopamine, sometimes known as “the feel-good neurotransmitter,” is what allows you to feel pleasure and motivation. When the brain’s dopamine system is not working as it is meant to, it has been linked to schizophrenia symptoms.[iv]
Habits and Lifestyle
It’s important to take care of your body and mind. Things like not getting enough high-quality sleep, regular unhealthy food choices, lack of exercise, and poor stress management can all play a role in developing a mental health condition.
- No one feels their best after a night of poor sleep, but it happens to all of us. The occasional night of tossing and turning won’t hurt you long-term, but chronic exhaustion can. Sleep problems like insomnia, consistently poor sleep quality, and frequent nightmares are related to mental health concerns and conditions, including a higher risk for suicidal thoughts and behaviors.[v]
Substance use. Using drugs or alcohol can trigger a mental health condition by affecting your moods, sleep, relationships, and physical health. It can also lead to changes in some of the same brain areas involved in other mental health conditions like depression and schizophrenia.[vi] It’s common for individuals already struggling with their mental health to turn to substances as a coping mechanism. This substance use can impact medications and make it harder to recover from a mental health condition. Substance use and mental health concerns often overlap; when someone has a mental health condition and a substance use disorder, it is referred to as dual diagnosis or co-occurring disorders.
- Individuals who frequently drink alcohol are more likely to be depressed than those who moderate their use.[vii] According to the 2020-2025 “Dietary Guidelines for Americans,” drinking in moderation is defined as one drink or less in a day for women and two drinks or less in a day for men.[viii]
Am I Destined to Have a Mental Health Condition?
It is important to know that experiencing any of these factors doesn’t mean that you’ll definitely develop a mental health condition. You can take steps to reduce your risk factors or increase your protective factors – like building supportive relationships, taking care of your body, and practicing gratitude. Just like any health condition, knowing the risk factors can help you address symptoms early on and plan a course of action to overall health.
If you know you have one or more of these risk factors, or if you feel like your mental health isn’t at its best, take a screen at www.MHAscreening.org to check in on your mental health.
What Causes Mental Illness? https://screening.mhanational.org/content/what-causes-mental-illness/
Is Mental Illness Genetic? https://screening.mhanational.org/content/mental-illness-genetic/
How the Brain Works https://mhanational.org/how-brain-works
What is Trauma? https://screening.mhanational.org/content/what-trauma/
Is All Trauma the Same? https://screening.mhanational.org/content/all-trauma-same/
Social Determinants of Health https://mhanational.org/social-determinants-health
[i] Chun-Chung Chow, J., Johnson, M.A., & Austin, M.J. (2005). The status of low-income neighborhoods in the post-welfare reform environment: Mapping the relationship between poverty and place. Journal of Health & Social Policy, 21(1), 1-32. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16418126/
[ii] Copeland, W., Shanahan, L., & Hinesley, J. (2018). Association of childhood trauma exposure with adult psychiatric disorders and functional outcomes. JAMA Netw Open, 1(7). doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2018.4493
[iii] Gottschalk, M.G., & Domschke, K. (2017). Genetics of generalized anxiety disorder and related traits. Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, 19(2), 159-168. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5573560/
[iv] Li, P., Snyder, G.L., & Vanover, K. E. (2016). Dopamine targeting drugs for the treatment of schizophrenia: Past, present, and future. Current Topics in Medicinal Chemistry, 16(29), 3385-3402. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5112764/
[v] Bernert, R.A., Kim, J.S., Iwata, N.G., & Perlis, M.L. (2015). Sleep disturbances as an evidence-based suicide risk factor. Current Psychiatry Reports, 17(3). https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25698339/
[vi] National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2021). Why is there comorbidity between substance use disorders and mental illnesses? https://nida.nih.gov/publications/research-reports/common-comorbidities-substance-use-disorders/why-there-comorbidity-between-substance-use-disorders-mental-illnesses
[vii] Holland, K. (2019). Understanding the link between alcohol use and depression. https://www.healthline.com/health/mental-health/alcohol-and-depression
[viii] U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (December 2020). Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025. https://www.dietaryguidelines.gov/resources/2020-2025-dietary-guidelines-online-materials