Just what does cause mental illness?

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This is the third part of a six part exploration of some of the things that may cause an empathy deficit in people when it comes to individuals living with mental illness. In the first of the six pieces we looked at the link between preconceived values and beliefs, then we took a look at the impact of being in denial about one’s own or a loved one’s mental illness. This month we’ll take a look at how a lack of awareness and education about mental illness can create an empathy deficit.

Strangely enough, as this post was due to be written, I had a conversation with a woman in a retail setting. We got talking about her family. She told me about a bipolar diagnosis in her father, which she thought was not bipolar – was not a mental illness, but the result of a lack of empathy and care in her father’s upbringing.

It got me thinking about how so many people have a lack of educated awareness about mental illness diagnoses. That with no training, no psychology or psychiatry degrees they will determine whether or not a diagnosis is real or that an undiagnosed person has a particular mental illness. Yes, people draw all sorts of conclusions in many different areas of their lives, with equally absent education or information. It is seems to be uncommon for non-medical people to diagnose diabetes or cancer in those we know, so why do so many people think it's ok to personally diagnose mental illness?

There is a book (or should I say tome) called the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders - known as the DSM. Over time it has gone through updates as new research and information comes to light. This is the bible of mental health diagnosis. In my opinion, it and people trained in the field are the only ones who ought to diagnose a mental illness.

This doesn't mean that we don't all have a role in supporting those in need, to access the appropriate medical and psychiatric care. And fortunately there are now organisations which are focussed on the education of the general population so that we or others can get the help needed when it’s required.

So in order to build your knowledge and awareness of mind health matters I'll share some information that I have previously offered in an earlier blog and talked about in many corporate and public settings. We'll take a look at the commonly known causes of mental illness.

Where do mental illnesses come from? …the Three Causes of Mental Illness
Based on my training with the Black Dog Institute, there are three causes of mental illness. An individual’s mental illness may be caused by one or all of these factors.
1. Genetics: it’s an hereditary thing passed on from your parents
2. Biological: your physical make up i.e. brain chemistry: including the influences of your the whole body
3. Environmental: your responses to the experiences, challenges, as well as place and times in which you live

Going back to the woman who believed that the bipolar diagnosis in her father was ‘not real’ because of his upbringing was simply unaware that the environment in which you grow up can be part or all of the cause of a mental illness developing in later life. My belief is that often one factor can predispose people to mental illness when a second factor comes into play. A genetic predisposition for depression might lie dormant until an environmental factor such as divorce or death of a loved one may trigger the depression. Yet equally unresolved grief may be a trigger for depression as a stand-alone environmental factor. And so the variables go on…

So, knowing that these factors are the causes of mental illness can allow us to let go of our false assumptions that have us diagnose or dispute a diagnosis with little or no medical experience. So here’s hoping that with more awareness of all the elements that influence the lives of those living with mental illness, we’ll build understanding of each of the causes. And as a result develop greater compassion and diminish the empathy deficit that people might be experiencing!

Next month I’ll take a look at the impact discomfort in your relationship with a person living with mental illness can add to the empathy deficit!

Why? Because mind health matters!