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The Behind the Scenes of Mental Illness

As we begin to learn what mental illness is, it is important to ask how it develops. This is a question I plan to continue to ask as I develop my career, and hopefully earn a Ph.D. and work to aide in expanding the research on mental illness. There are several myths scattered throughout that promote in the different stigmas that exist. However, when it comes to mental illness, there is no single answer for its development that will cover all cases. It is not a germ you can catch; it is something that develops due to numerous variables impacting that development. This blog will break down to four main factors of how mental illness develops: biological, environmental, genetic, and psychological.

Cause vs. Correlation

Cause and correlation are often used interchangeably; however, they mean two different things and in this case, it’s important to establish the differences. Causes directly impact the development of something, while correlation means there is a relationship between the components. For example, studies show that smoking causes a higher risk of developing cancer. There is a correlation for individuals of the male sex to be more likely to smoke. This is a correlation because your sex does not cause you to smoke, but a relationship is present. When examining these factors that play a role in mental illness, we are looking at correlations and not causes. Since each element is present in individual’s lives, it’s the combination and/or alteration of them that aide in the development of mental illness.

Biological Factors

Biological factors are our daily active patterns, our routines per say. This is one of the areas mental illnesswhere our coping or courage skills make the biggest impact. Biological factors are where all of the positive, negative, and neutral elements of the day come into play. If you do the same activity every day it becomes a neutral activity and it doesn’t invoke emotion. Brushing your teeth tends to be a neutral activity because it doesn’t cause joy or happiness nor anger or sadness, while our positive and negative emotions are invoked by something. So, while a favorite food may encourage positive emotions, poor social interaction may encourage negative emotions. The impacts of the emotions, rather positive or negative, play a vital role in state of your mental health. It is all about which emotion you held onto most each and every day.


Environmental Factors

Environmental factors are the seasonal difference or the ‘Big Picture’. Seasons are directly influenced by how close we are to the sun. They bring about different temperatures, daylight savings times, etc. These different elements impact our biological clock and alter how much or little is produced of our neurotransmitters (chemical messenger naturally released by our body). The sun setting encourages the production of melatonin which helps us sleep. The amount of sun we receive during the day impacts how much serotonin, the happiness chemical, our body releases when we avoid punishment. With the body considering sunlight a ‘good thing’ and the lack thereof a ‘bad thing’, more serotonin is released during more sunny times of the year. So, depending on the levels of your neurotransmitter, hormones, etc., different times of the year may be better or worse for your mental health. This then impacts the development of mental illness, like SAD.

Genetic Factors

The genetic factor focuses on your genome (entire DNA sequence) and your family history. By mental illnessexamining your genome, one may be able to point out genetic variants (unique DNA sequences) that have the potential to increase your risk for developing a specific illness. Your family history is taken into consideration here because family history tends to show a higher risk for development than genetic variants do. So when we are examining mental illness genetically, having a family member with a mental illness or a genetic variant increases your chance of developing a mental illness, especially when the other factors come into play. It’s important to keep in mind all of the other factors and to take good care of your mental health, especially if these risks are at play.

Having genetic variants or family history does not mean that you will develop an illness; it simply means your risk of developing an illness is slightly higher.

Psychological Factors

The psychological factor can be broken into four components: perception, motivation, mental illnessattitude, and learning. In essence, this factor is how we see things, why we do them, how we feel about them, and how we learned about them. This is an important factor because it pulls from the biological, environmental, and genetic factors into a whole new component that impacts how we see the world. An extremely negative or positive outlook is not direct pointers to the state of our mental health. If the world and everyone in it are against us, we aren’t paying attention to the good or holding on to those positive emotions, and if we see the world as an “all-good all-amazing” place with nothing going wrong, we may be silver lining instead of empathizing. It’s truly a balance of good and bad things. Recognize the bad as it comes along and appreciate the good as we have it.

In the end, there are outward and inward displays of mental health and illness with numerous different factors impacting our health from the biological, genetic, environmental, and psychological. There isn’t just one answer to how mental illness develops, just like there isn’t just one way to break your arm. How mental illness develops is an important question to ask, but it isn’t something that you should expect an individual to be able to pinpoint the exact answer. There may be multiple factors behind it and everybody’s story is unique to themselves. The stigmas that are present in our society dilute the importance of individual’s stories and create a road block for people to get help. Mental health is complicated and is more advanced than the stigmas make it out to be. With this in mind, it’s always important to check in on those around you when you notice signs of mental illness and ask questions when you do not understand.


Allison Kohl joined The Kim Foundation in May 2019. She is currently a student at Nebraska Wesleyan University majoring in Psychology & Communication with a minor in Biology. She has intentions to continue her education in graduate school to earn a PhD in Clinical or Neuropsychology where she hopes to further the current research surrounding mental health and illness. Allie enjoys singing in her university’s women’s choir and spending time with friends.