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What Causes Mental Illness in Youth?

mental illness risk factors

Most mental illnesses develop between adolescence and young adulthood. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 75 percent of mental health disorders begin by age 24. While it is devastating to think about our children struggling with mental illness, it is an important reality to face: 1 in every 6 youth experience a mental health condition. Mental illness can affect anyone, of any age or upbringing. There is also not one single cause of mental illness, but rather, a variety of risk factors that can increase a person’s susceptibility to mental health problems.

In general, the causes of mental illness can be genetic, biological, or environmental. As cited by the National Library of Medicine and the Mayo Clinic:

  • Genetic factors include your genes and family history. If a blood relative has a mental illness, it could predispose a family member to mental illness, too—however, it’s likely that a life situation will trigger its onset and symptoms. For example, a traumatic event or abuse could trigger a mental illness in a person who has inherited susceptibility to it. 
  • Biological influences involve the brain chemistry. Mental illness is innately tied to brain function, and can be triggered by chemical imbalances or disruptions to one’s neural networks and nerve systems.
  • Environmental factors are based on life experiences, as well as certain exposures before birth. For example, exposure to alcohol, drugs, and other toxins in the womb can be linked to mental health conditions in children. Additionally, early life experiences like stress, trauma, abuse, and loneliness can lead to the development of mental illness over time.

Now, let’s break these down a bit more. Again, when discussing the causes of mental illness, remember that these are actually risk factors: circumstances that make a person more at risk of, or vulnerable to, developing a mental illness. Experiencing these factors, however, does not guarantee that your child will ever experience mental health problems—these factors simply increase the chances of developing disorders like depression or anxiety.

Risk Factors of Mental Illness

  • History of a mental illness in a blood relative, such as parent or sibling
  • A chronic medical condition, such as diabetes or cancer
  • Brain damage caused by serious injury or trauma
  • Imbalance of natural chemicals in the brain
  • Disruption in early fetal brain development 
  • Prenatal exposure to drugs and alcohol, viruses, or toxic chemicals
  • Certain infections, which have been linked to brain damage and mental illness
  • Stressful life situations, such as financial problems, divorce, or a death
  • Substance abuse (drugs and/or alcohol)
  • History of trauma, abuse, or neglect, especially during childhood
  • History of a previous mental illness
  • Negative thought patterns
  • Unhealthy habits, like poor nutrition or lack of sleep
  • Having few friends or few healthy relationships, leading to loneliness and isolation

In children and teens specifically, early triggers can contribute to early development of mental health symptoms, such as:

  • Severe psychological trauma as a child, such as emotional, physical, or sexual abuse
  • Neglect and abandonment
  • An early loss of a significant loved one, such as a parent
  • Inability to connect with or relate to others
  • Negative feelings like low self-esteem, inadequacy, anger, loneliness, and anxiety
  • Substance abuse in the family and/or at a young age

Understanding the Causes of Mental Illness

When thinking about the causes of mental illness, it is also important to think about what does not cause these disorders:

  • Mental illness is not caused by physical or ethnic traits. 
  • It is not caused by character flaws or personal weakness. 
  • Mental illness is not caused by one, single event.
  • It is not the fault of the person who has a mental health disorder. 

Time and time again, research shows us that environmental and biological factors are what cause mental illness to develop. And this is important to remember. Too often, the above myths contribute to the stigma around mental illness. When one places blame on the person struggling, or on certain traits they possess, it can prevent them from getting help. This blame can make them scared to admit they have a mental health problem, or too ashamed to seek treatment. If your loved one is struggling with a mental health problem, know that it is not their fault. It is not their choice. Mental health conditions are a reality, and though they are not always visible, they do require professional, clinical care.

Mental illness is not always apparent in children, teens, and young adults, and is typically diagnosed when tell-tale signs start to display or symptoms affect their quality of life. If you believe your teen or young adult is struggling with a mental health condition, consider contacting your family doctor or a mental health care provider. This type of professional can review your loved one’s medical history, current symptoms, and assess next steps. 

If you are looking for guidance and do not know where to turn, you may also contact Turnbridge for help. Turnbridge offers mental health and substance use disorder treatment programs for young adults and adolescents. Call 877-581-1793 to learn more.