Risk Factors for Mental Illness

Mental health month 2015

Just a reminder that May is Mental Health Month. In an effort to increase public awareness about mental illness and to promote good mental health, behavioral health organizations nationwide are celebrating Mental Health Month.

Today, we want to take a look at the risk factors that can influence the development of a mental disorder. For centuries, it was thought that mental illness was the result of demon possession or willful behaviors. Today we understand that mental illness can be caused by a variety of factors, from genetics to environmental stressors.

Understanding the risk factors that contribute to mental illness can help us be more aware of our own potential risks, or that of loved ones, and to better recognize warning signs when they occur.

Following are major risk factors for mental illness, as compiled by Mental Health America:

 

Genes. We know that from 17-28% of all risk for mental illness can be attributed to genetic variations. Research has shown much higher percentages in twin and family studies. Following are examples of estimates for how much particular mental illnesses are tied to genetic factors:

Schizophrenia: 81%

Bipolar disorder: 75%

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder: 75%

Depression: 37%

 

Biology. Changes in the brain are a key factor in the development of some forms of mental illness. For example, one study found that head injuries between the ages of 11-15 were the single strongest predictors for the development of schizophrenia, depression, and bipolar disorder. Abnormalities in the prefrontal and frontal cortex regions of the brain are another risk factor, along with irregularities in the function of neurotransmitters.

Environment. Individuals who are exposed to traumatic or stressful events in childhood; e.g., abuse or neglect, or parental divorce, incarceration or mental illness, are:

2.6 times more likely to develop depression

5 times more likely to develop serious alcohol problems

17 times more likely to develop learning or behavioral problems

 

Environment. Individuals who are exposed to traumatic or stressful events in childhood; e.g., abuse or neglect, or parental divorce, incarceration or mental illness, are:

2.6 times more likely to develop depression

5 times more likely to develop serious alcohol problems

17 times more likely to develop learning or behavioral problems

Stresses in adulthood can also lead to mental disorders; e.g., post-traumatic stress disorder. 

 

Lifestyle. The abuse of substances can increase one’s chance of developing a mental illness, and mental illness can increase the risk of substance abuse. Mixing alcohol or drugs with mental health problems is a dangerous combination. People with any type of mental illness are:

2.3 times more likely to develop nicotine dependence

3 times more likely to develop alcohol dependence

30 times more likely to develop illicit drug dependence

 

Rather than “blaming the victim” when it comes to mental illness, we can become more aware of the complex factors that influence the development of mental and substance abuse disorders.

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