Expert Interview: What Causes Mental Illness?

Since the beginning of time there has been a huge debate about what causes mental illness: Is it nature or nurture?

It’s actually both, according to Justin Baksh, MS, LMHC, LPC, MCAP and Chief Clinical Officer at Foundations Wellness Center.

Mental illness can be genetically inherited; however, there are environmental pathways for the onset of it as well. The grief over losing a loved one, for example, can bring on depression.

“We call this ‘situational onset,’” explained Baksh. “There are situations in life that can influence or contribute to the symptoms of mental illness as opposed to a clinical diagnosis.”

What is Mental Illness?
“We love to use the example of having diabetes to explain what mental illness is,” Baksh said. “With diabetes, your body does not produce enough (or any) insulin, and you need to use medication to regulate your glucose levels instead. This is much like the chemical component of mental illness, where we use medication to treat the problem. However, it’s also important for people with diabetes to manage everyday factors such as diet and exercise. With mental illness, you use therapy to help you develop better coping mechanisms.”

As Baksh indicates, mental illness is simply a condition or disease like diabetes, except it deals with the brain.

He also points to the fact that mental illness is very intangible versus other types of diseases.

“With diabetes, for instance, you can objectively measure your glucose levels and adjust your insulin to match,” said Baksh. “It doesn’t quite work that way with mental illness.”

Mental illness can involve a chemical imbalance, but it’s so much more. It’s the way you think, the way you perceive the world, how you process life, as well as other internal and external factors. “It’s more than just a chemical imbalance, said Baksh. “Although that can definitely be a component of it.”

Treating Mental Illness: It’s Not Just About Taking Drugs
If there is a genetic basis for an individual to be concerned about developing mental illness, Baksh recommends that he or she get educated about the condition to develop an understanding of it, as well as possible counseling to get to a point of acceptance of the possibility.

Once it is clear that a person has developed a mental health condition, the way to manage or treat it is the same as for the person who developed it through an external or situational factor.

For those who don’t have a family history of mental illness, it’s important to understand how to de-stress and to develop healthy coping mechanisms. You don’t want stressors to accumulate to the point where it becomes a mental health diagnosis. It’s better to deal with isolated events as they happen, versus burying things through avoidance or denial for 10 years or more. Seek out therapy as you need it instead.

Stemming from the physiological perspective, certain mental health conditions, such as depression, translate to a chemical imbalance in the brain, for example. Serotonin and dopamine are some of the chemicals your brain produces which make you feel good, and the lack of them is what accounts for the physical aspects of depression. When it comes to treatment, we can use anti-depressant medications such as SSRIs (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors) to slow down the serotonin reabsorbed into the receiving synapsis.

Therefore, medication is an essential component of treating depression – but it’s not the cure-all.

If correcting the chemical deficiency in your brain was enough, then therapy wouldn’t be needed. Another component of depression is the way you think.

Have you ever noticed how one negative thought leads to another?
It becomes a negative, ruminating loop playing in your mind. These thoughts lead to feelings of hopelessness and helplessness as well as a loss of interest in activities. As one negative thought feeds another, it then impacts your emotions, or how you feel. “Soon, your whole thinking is negatively distorted, creating a pervasive routine and developing an unintentional pathway in the brain that feeds off the negativity.” said Baksh.

Depression impacts you physically, mentally, and emotionally – and that’s just the internal stuff. There are external factors to consider as well.

For example, if you’re in physical pain, your tolerance is lessened.

“Let’s use the example of those who have kids – as a parent, you become less tolerant of them if you are hurting physically,” said Baksh. “It’s the same with a mental health condition. When you are depressed, others need to treat you with kid gloves, because you are in the equivalent state of being in physical pain…you are struggling.”

Baksh adds that there is some accountability on the individual who does have a mental condition, though, to work toward dispelling a distorted perception of events as well, and this is where therapy can help.

The Stigma of Mental Illness Needs to Disappear
“If I could wave a magic wand, I’d instantly take away the negative stigma associated with mental health conditions,” said Baksh. “Many people keep it secret because they are terrified of being judged. I’ve seen it in both females and males…this sense of having a secret shame. For males, especially, you would think that admitting a mental health diagnosis is kryptonite. It shouldn’t be this way. Every single human being can be prone to developing a mental health illness. When people have diabetes, they don’t say, ‘Hi, I’m Justin, I have diabetes.’ It’s the same with a mental health condition. However, people feel as if they are wearing a scarlet letter if they have a mental illness.”

Chances are that you will not go through an entire lifespan without experiencing depression, anxiety, or some type of mental health illness. It may not be diagnosed as such, but it may turn up at some point in your life.

If so, be sure to get the help you need…and leave the judgement behind.

After all, if you were physically sick, you’d have no shame in getting treatment. It shouldn’t be any different with mental illness.

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