On Mental Illness: The Causes

By Jack Bragen
Friday November 04, 2011 - 02:04:00 PM

A statistic says medication helps a third of people with schizophrenic symptoms, while a third remain ill and are not helped by medication, and the remaining third of people get well without needing medication. The exact causes of mental illnesses are still not fully understood. However, we do know it runs in families, genetics plays a large role, and the parents are not usually to blame for the illnesses of their offspring. 

Some instances of mental illness are triggered by having a sane reaction to an insane situation. If someone lives among an absurd level of violence, and their consciousness can’t tolerate it, they might create psychosis or some other type of disorder in an attempt to shield their consciousness from the horror. If you want to see an example of this, look up the movie “K-Pax” which came out just before the 9-11 attack. Kevin Spacey plays a psychiatric patient who invents a profound extraterrestrial presence to deal with horrible events that happened earlier in life. 

However, one can’t say that living under harsh or violent conditions is the sole cause of mental illness, since many people grow up among such conditions, and instead of becoming psychotic, become hardened to the conditions of their environment. 

Although the exact causes of mental illnesses are not known, we can usually rule out blaming the parents for the illnesses of their children. When parents are extremely abusive it tends to produce a different category of mental illness than “regular” bipolar, schizophrenia, or depression. For example, multiple personality disorder, also known as Adult Disassociative Disorder (not the same thing as schizophrenia) can be induced by childhood trauma. When parents have done something terribly wrong, the illnesses produced are very different, and can not be traced to a biochemical disorder. Counseling rather than medication becomes the primary way of treating such a person. 

. Finding a person to blame for one’s illness, whether it is the parents, oneself, or someone else, is usually destructive, counterproductive and will not help matters get better. Rather than finding a person to blame, one should focus on what will help the person with mental illness do better in the present and future. 

Students in high school who are “pre-schizophrenic” may have difficulty socializing with peers. It is not uncommon for persons with mental illnesses to have a history of being bullied in public school. Rather than the bullying being the cause of the mental illness, it is more likely to be a symptom of the illness to come. The student that gets bullied is often less adept at conforming to the social norms and at defending their self against the aggressions of other kids. They are seen as a good target for the abuse of more aggressive kids. The kid who gets bullied may lack the same defenses, originally, that peers have; this could be an early symptom of future mental illness. This bullying is usually not traumatic enough to by itself create a lifelong mental illness. 

Persons who lived in the NAZI concentration camps had problems afterward but didn’t necessarily develop the mental illnesses that we are more familiar with, such as Schizophrenia. People go through all manner of hardships, extreme suffering and adverse conditions without developing schizophrenia. 

If schizophrenia is truly a medical disease, and I believe it is, it is not necessarily brought on by a harsh environment. Some physical diseases are caused by environmental factors, such as emphysema from smoking, skin cancer from excessive sunlight, and type II Diabetes from excessive weight. Some diseases are caused by damage that occurs to the fetus before a person is born. Other diseases are unrelated to environment. Alzheimer’s, anything bacteriological, from Syphilis to Salmonella, and hereditary illnesses such as Hemophilia and Sickle Cell Anemia, can all afflict people regardless of the conditions in which they were raised. 

By categorizing mental illnesses as medical illnesses, we can see that it is usually pointless to try to figure out what someone’s parents did wrong to produce mentally ill offspring. 

On the other hand, there are some categories of mental illness specifically related to environment, such as PTSD and possibly multiple personality disorder. A number of the soldiers who fought in Iraq are coming back with PTSD, and need mental health treatment. One wonders how people dealt with the traumas of fighting in WWII, or perhaps the Civil War. Maybe the human organism is more sensitive than it was, as evolution tries to move the human species away from its warlike tendencies.