Mental health problems can have a wide range of causes. It's likely that for many people there is a complicated combination of factors – although different people may be more deeply affected by certain things than others.
For example, the following factors could potentially result in a period of poor mental health:
- childhood abuse, trauma, or neglect
- social isolation or loneliness
- experiencing discrimination and stigma
- social disadvantage, poverty or debt
- bereavement (losing someone close to you)
- severe or long-term stress
- having a long-term physical health condition
- unemployment or losing your job
- homelessness or poor housing
- being a long-term carer for someone
- drug and alcohol misuse
- domestic violence, bullying or other abuse as an adult
- significant trauma as an adult, such as military combat, being involved in a serious incident in which you feared for your life, or being the victim of a violent crime
- physical causes – for example, a head injury or a neurological condition such as epilepsy can have an impact on your behaviour and mood. (It's important to rule out potential physical causes before seeking further treatment for a mental health problem).
Although lifestyle factors including work, diet, drugs and lack of sleep can all affect your mental health, if you experience a mental health problem there are usually other factors as well.
My depression seems to flare up during times when I am stressed and isolated from other people.
Do mental health problems run in families?
Research suggests that some mental health problems may run in families. For example, if you have a parent with schizophrenia, you are more likely to develop schizophrenia yourself. But no one knows if this is because of our genes or because of other factors, such as the environment we grow up in, or the ways of thinking, coping and behaving that we may learn from our parents.
Although the development of some mental health problems may be influenced by our genes, researchers haven't found any specific genes that definitely cause mental health problems.
And many people who experience a mental health problem don't have any parents, children or other relatives with the same condition.
Is brain chemistry a factor?
The human brain is extremely complicated. Some research suggests that mental health problems may be linked to a variation in certain brain chemicals (such as serotonin and dopamine), but no one really understands how or why. Arguments that someone’s brain chemistry is the cause of mental health problems are very weak.
But even though there’s no strong evidence to say that any mental health problems are caused by a chemical imbalance in our brains, you might find some people still use brain chemistry to explain them.
Reasons for this might include:
- Some psychiatric medications work by acting on chemicals in the brain, and there's lots of evidence to show that medication can be effective in treating some symptoms of mental health problems (although drugs don't work the same way for everyone).
- Mental health problems can feel very personal and be hard to understand, so the idea that there could be a distinct physical cause for difficult thoughts, feelings and behaviours might make it feel easier to talk openly about your experiences and ask for help.
It's important to remember that just because we may not know exactly what causes someone to experience a mental health problem, this doesn't mean that it is any less serious than any other illness, any less deserving of recognition and treatment, or any easier to recover from.
This information was published in October 2017 – to be revised in 2020. References are available on request. If you would like to reproduce any of this information see our page on permissions and licensing.