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what causes children's mental illness?

Posted by Mike Hannan on Feb 7, 2017 3:00:00 PM

sad-214977_960_720.jpgFor parents, it is shocking and distressing to witness the changes in one’s child experiencing a mental health crisis. They wonder: is this my child? Where does this come from? What did I do to cause this?

Perhaps some of the most profound and important questions about mental illness are about what causes it. Is an individual born with mental illness? Is the environment in which he or she lives partly – or completely – responsible? Or is it a combination of both? Just as adults ask these questions, so do the parents of children who may be struggling with an illness. The answers can be as varied as the experts asked and the answers available. The causes of mental illness are hot topics for research and understanding by medical doctors, psychologists and therapists alike. Regardless of causes and opinions, the large majority of experts agree that diagnosing a mental illness early is critical, and getting kids the treatment they need is essential.

Physical Causes of Mental Illness

Scientists have been researching potential physical and genetic causes for mental illness for decades, yet there isn’t a blood test, x-ray or scan that can definitively say, “Yes, you have a mental illness.” It’s far more complex than that. In a 2012 article on the American Psychological Association’s website, Eric Kandel, MD, a Nobel Prize laureate and Columbia University professor, contends that the root cause of mental illness is biological. “All mental processes are brain processes, and therefore all disorders of mental functioning are biological diseases," he writes.

 Scientists with conflicting perspectives have tempered that assertion. In the same article, Richard McNally, PhD, a clinical psychologist at Harvard University, states, "Certain disorders such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and autism fit the biological model in a very clear-cut sense.” He continues, acknowledging, “Yet for other conditions, such as depression or anxiety, the biological foundation is more nebulous. Often mental illnesses are likely to have multiple causes, including genetic, biological and environmental factors.” 

 The progress scientists have made in mapping the human genome has helped to identify some genetic causes of mental illness, specifically schizophrenia. In 2011, a consortium of research organizations identified five genetic markers associated with the mental illness. In McNally's view, there's little danger that mental health professionals will forget the importance of environmental factors to the development of mental illness. 

Environmental Causes of Mental Illness 

We’ve all heard the “nature versus nurture” argument about whether or not biology and genetic tendencies define a person, or if that individual’s experience and environment shape the definition. Rather than it being a black-and-white issue, ongoing research indicates it’s a grey area.

 An area of research called epigenetics examines how the environment can change the way genes express themselves. McNally says, “Certain genes are turned on or off, expressed or not expressed, depending on how the environment affects an individual.” In other words, one could be predisposed genetically to experience bipolar disorder; however, that mental illness may not occur if the gene is never triggered by something the person experiences.

 James Fallon, a neuroscientist, has the brain imaging pattern and genetic profile of a psychopath, which he discovered while he was a part of several clinical studies. Fallon says he believes he did not grow up to be a psychopath because even though he has the “risk” genes, he was loved and cared for (versus abuse or abandonment) from birth through childhood, and that seems to offset the psychopathy-inducing effects of the “risk” genes. Knowing the powerful effects of a positive environment, proper treatment of children’s mental illness should always include family therapy and parental support as part of the child care plan.

 McNally sums the debate up nicely saying, "I think what's happening is not a battle between biological and non-biological approaches, but an increasingly nuanced and sophisticated appreciation for the multiple perspectives.”

For hope and healing,

Mike Hannan

As the director of communications for Clarity Child Guidance Center, Mike shares the insights  of children’s mental health experts, both inside and outside of Clarity CGC, who work with families looking for answers about their children’s mental health.

If you are experiencing an emergency, please call 9-1-1. If you need help locating mental health resources in your area, visit the Bexar County Community Resource website, call your local health department or the National Alliance Mental Illness's helpline at 800-950- NAMI (6264).

Topics: Children's Mental Health, Mental Illness