Raise your hand if you’ve ever developed bodily aches after taking on some home improvements or annoying muscular pains after a cheery session of festive house decorations. If your hand is up (or if your arm is too sore to raise above your head), you probably know the inner-conflict associated with paralysing muscular aches triggered by a simple domestic undertaking.
“Have I torn a muscle, or is the stiffness just temporary?” you might ask yourself. Perhaps you’ve wondered, “Should I get professional treatment, or shall I just put my feet up and rest for a couple of days, trusting the pain will subside?”
“What if I’m just melodramatic? But, what if it’s serious…”
Let’s face it, unfamiliar physical aches and pains can make even the most confident among us doubt ourselves. Just so, becoming aware of mental discomfort and psychological tenderness can make us wish for a crystal ball, an authority on the subject who could tell us “what”, “why”, and “what now”.
While the team at Bridge Mental Health is still waiting for Santa to deliver our package of omniscience, this blog will share some guideposts for navigating your journey of mental self-discovery.
What causes mental illness?
Though no single cause can be pinpointed, many factors have been identified to heighten one’s risk of developing a mental disorder. According to NHS, the main risk factors for common mental disorders roughly fall into the categories of illness, living conditions and personal circumstances, personality type, family history, and drug use.
Physical and mental health is closely intertwined. In effect, you may have a higher risk of developing common mental disorders like depression if you have a longstanding or life-threatening illness, e.g. coronary heart disease or cancer. Other examples of interaction between physical and psychological health include:
- Head injuries have been found to cause depression in some cases, while severe head injuries have been linked with mood swings and other emotional problems.
- An underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism) or an injured pituitary gland could cause symptoms like exhaustion and a decreased libido that could turn into depression.
Living conditions and personal circumstances
No matter how emotionally strong or mature you are, the reality is that each of us are influenced by our surroundings. Environmental stressors and personal circumstances that increase one’s risk of developing a mental health condition include:
- Stressful events or periods like divorce or bereavement
- Difficult social or economic circumstances
- Pregnancy and giving birth, a period where hormonal and physical changes, as well as added responsibility increases stress on the new mother, or mother-to-be.
Certain personality traits, like a low self-esteem, pessimism, being overly critical of yourself, could make you more prone to depression.
Both positions in the nature versus nurture debate are probable contributors to a heightened risk of developing a mental health condition. While genetic research on the topic is on-going and far from conclusive, studies have pinpointed a number of genetic factors that are common to certain common mental disorders. Taking the nurture perspective, the field of epigenetics is producing a growing body of evidence that supports the hypothesis that environmental exposure can trigger psychological illness on a genetic level.
Regardless the mechanism, the reality is that a person is more likely to develop a psychiatric disorder if a family member suffers from a common mental health illness.
Alcohol and drugs
Contrary to the perception of nicotine as a relaxant and alcohol as a ‘social lubricant’, alcohol is categorised as a ‘strong depressant’ and cigarette smoking can in fact increase anxiety levels.
In the case of illicit drugs, studies have shown that the use of cannabis, cocaine, LSD or amphetamines, could trigger symptoms of mental disorders in people who are genetically at risk to develop a psychiatric disease.
Signs of mental illness
Now that we’ve touched on mental health risk factors, let’s look at how mental illness could manifest in people from different stages of life (source: Mental Health America).
In Adults, Young Adults and Adolescents:
- Confused thinking
- Prolonged depression (sadness or irritability)
- Feelings of extreme highs and lows
- Excessive fears, worries and anxieties
- Social withdrawal
- Dramatic changes in eating or sleeping habits
- Strong feelings of anger
- Strange thoughts (delusions)
- Seeing or hearing things that aren’t there (hallucinations)
- Growing inability to cope with daily problems and activities
- Suicidal thoughts
- Numerous unexplained physical ailments
- Substance use
In Older Children and Pre-Adolescents:
- Substance abuse
- Inability to cope with problems and daily activities
- Changes in sleeping and/or eating habits
- Excessive complaints of physical ailments
- Changes in ability to manage responsibilities – at home and/or at school
- Defiance of authority, truancy, theft, and/or vandalism
- Intense fear
- Prolonged negative mood, often accompanied by poor appetite or thoughts of death
- Frequent outbursts of anger
In Younger Children:
- Changes in school performance
- Poor grades despite strong efforts
- Changes in sleeping and/or eating habits
- Excessive worry or anxiety (i.e. refusing to go to bed or school)
- Persistent nightmares
- Persistent disobedience or aggression
- Frequent temper tantrums
Do I have a mental illness?
Did any of the signs listed above make alarm bells ring in your mind? If so, there’s one thing you need to know: There’s no harm done by reaching out to a mental health professional for an evaluation, even if you have misinterpreted your symptoms. Bridge’s team of counsellors and therapists would be more than happy to meet with you, whether your concern is great or simply a niggling feeling.