How Does Mental Illness Start?

Image by Kristin Schmit on Flickr

Image by Kristin Schmit on Flickr

Is mental illness just in our head?

Researchers have been trying to answer this question for hundreds of years. We never even considered that the brain could be unhealthy just like every other major organ in our body until, in the early 1800s, we stopped blaming people's strange behavior on ghouls and goblins.

Once we realized that mental illness was a common experience, psychiatry found a good explanation for where it came from: the brain. It wasn't working like we wanted it to. This was the popular belief about mental illness (and still is) until relationship experts and family therapists started to challenge the idea that mental illness came only from the mind.

What about our relationships?

Is mental illness because of how we were raised?

Sociologists and relationship researchers noticed patterns of behaviors in people's families and social environments that caused people's unwanted behaviors. Conditions like poverty or abuse make mental illness more likely. Lack of quality friendships creates loneliness and isolation, which are symptoms of depression.

So, many health experts started to include social and family environments as causes of mental illness. But that still leaves us with an unclear picture of the origins of mental illness.

Where does mental illness actually come from?

Like most things, experts believe the answer is somewhere in the middle. We could be at risk for certain mental illnesses because of our genetics. Alcoholism, for example, unquestionably runs in families. But researchers don't know if this is because of learned behaviors or because of a genetic risk for alcoholism. Either way, prevention is super important because, if you have a genetic risk to abuse alcohol, there's nothing you can do about it anymore than you can change your eye color.

Except of course, to be careful with alcohol.

So no matter where mental illness begins, we should be thinking about mental health and wellness. When doctors ask us to get screened early for health risks like breast cancer or heart disease, it's not because knowing that risk will change our DNA, it's because knowing ourselves will help us create a path to better self-care and prevention.

So if you really want to know where your risk for mental illness begins, you can get genetic testing done, or maybe do a family tree. But what it really comes down to is this:

Are you taking care of yourself?

Mental illness is just like any other health challenge. You can prevent some of the major symptoms by moving your body the way it was intended, by hanging out with your friends and family (even when you don't feel like it), and by staying in the produce section of your local grocery store.

But, you can't prevent all symptoms of mental illness. That's why things like counseling and group therapy exist. Besides, mental illness is just a term we use to describe having less than our optimal mental health. 

So there's no reason to be embarrassed, ashamed or silent about mental health. We've all felt unwell. Taking action to prevent illness or intervening when you need more help is the key to all health.

Why should your mental health be any different?

-Posted by Dr. Mathis Kennington, LMFT-S

The Practice ATX

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