What Causes Mental Disorders? | Valley Behavioral Health
All Articles

November 12, 2020 By Dr. Todd Thatcher, DO, CMO

According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, approximately 1 in 4 American adults suffer from a mental health disorder in any given year — and many suffer from more than one. Being an incredibly complex topic, it can be tough to understand, both for those living with a mental health disorder and their loved ones.

While the exact cause of most mental disorders is not entirely known, research shows that the majority of conditions stem from a combination of psychological, biological, environmental variables. It’s also important to note that each individual is unique, not just in terms of their genetics and brain chemistry, but also their past experiences.


Biological Variables to Consider

Many of the most common mental health disorders are linked to biological factors, particularly abnormal functioning of nerve pathways. However, biological variables are anything physical that cause adverse effects, including genetics, brain defects, prenatal damage, infections, exposure to toxins, and substance abuse. For example, although there is a strong link between depression and environmental factors, a person who has a relative with depression is nearly five times as likely to develop depression themselves. Researchers even isolated a gene prevalent in numerous family members with depression. Overall, scientists believe that around 40 percent of people with depression trace to a genetic link, whereas environmental factors make up the other 60 percent.

Other potential causes include disruption of early fetal development (i.e. loss of oxygen to the brain); long-term substance abuse (linked to anxiety, depression, and paranoia); infections (i.e. Streptococcus bacteria has been linked to OCD in children); etc.

Psychological Variables to Consider

When considering psychological variables, the following potential contributing factors should be considered:

  • Neglect
  • Poor ability to relate to others
  • Early loss, such as the death of a parent
  • Severe trauma, including physical, emotional, or sexual abuse as a child

For example, someone who experiences childhood abuse may have a higher risk of developing anxiety disorders, including PTSD, as well as depression, eating disorders, and personality disorders. Research shows that the severity of one’s mental health problems later in life may be based on the time that the abuse began. While more research needs to be conducted, it appears that abuse occurring in children age 5 or older may have the greatest impact on mental health.

Environmental Variables to Consider

Select triggers throughout life can cause mental illness, particularly among those who are susceptible. Again, mental health is incredibly complex. An environmental trigger may influence a genetic predisposition. Overall, some of the most common environmental factors include but are not limited to:

  • Dysfunctional family life
  • A death or divorce
  • A change in schools or jobs, causing immense stress
  • Substance abuse by either the individual or their parents
  • Feelings of inadequacy (i.e. low self-esteem)

While focusing on variables such as divorce, it’s important to note the impact that mental health can have. Not only can divorce cause issues with mental health, but studies show that mental illness increases the likelihood of divorce by up to 80 percent. That is why it’s so important to take proactive action in regard to your mental health.

Who Is at Risk for Mental Disorders?

As discussed, the causes of mental disorders are not black and white, as many risk factors are involved, which may be present in any combination. In that sense, no one is “immune” to diminishing mental health. In some cases, individuals are born with a genetic predisposition, whereas others experience unexpected trauma. Each mental health condition is also linked to its own unique risk factors (i.e. living through a dangerous event, such as war, is linked to PTSD).

New research suggests that the single biggest risk factor for psychiatric disorders is early adversity, including physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, as well as neglect.

How Are Mental Disorders Diagnosed?

If you or a loved one are concerned about your current mental health, it’s critical that you seek professional support. In order for a diagnosis to be made, classification and diagnostic criteria exist. While there is no single definition of mental disorders, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders will help determine whether or not your behaviors and/or symptoms meet the criteria for a specific mental health disorder.

Once a diagnosis has been reached, you will then receive a personalized treatment plan. At Valley Behavioral Health, we understand that a “one-size-fits-all” approach isn’t effective. That is why we provide customized behavioral and mental health services to improve our clients’ mental health and overall quality of life. During the development of your treatment plan and throughout your recovery process, all of the above variables will be taken into consideration.

Providing services to Salt Lake County residents at various locations (and beyond via telehealth), Valley Behavioral Health is here to help you every step of the way. For more information, please contact us today!


Get in touch with us today

Call Us – Se habla Español

SLC: (888) 949-4864

Fill in the form below and we will contact you:

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.