The Roots of Mental Illness

Psychology is a newer form of medical science. The truth is this field is still growing and learning about the psyche, mental illness, and the contributing factors to the development of a psychological disorder.

However, recent research on the brain is quickly providing more and more information about diagnosis, treatment, and the roots of certain mental illnesses. Some researchers, such as Eric Kandel, MD, a Nobel Prize laureate and professor of brain science at Columbia University, believe that it is all biology. Seeing mental illness from strictly a brain imbalance point of the view, for example, is relying on the biomedical model, which says that just as the heart has certain malfunctions that will cause a disorder, so too does the brain. And when the organ of the brain malfunctions, a disorder will result, as would any other part of the physical body. This is Kandel’s point of view.

However, other researchers sway more on the side of not knowing, recognizing that the field of psychology is on the cusp of transformation and that dramatic change to our understanding of the mind, brain, and consciousness is forthcoming. For instance, in recent years researchers have been able to link certain genes with schizophrenia. They have also been to point to certain brain abnormalities that may increase an individual’s risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder after experiencing trauma.

Even before these recent discoveries in brain science research, it has been clear that mental illness is a complex story. What contribute to it are not only genetics, but also environment, brain abnormalities, physiology, and even nutrition. In other words, even though an individual might have a genetic predisposition towards a particular disorder, environmental influences, stress, birth complications, and the presence of certain viruses can also play a role. There’s a current trend in psychological research now that tends to rely too heavily on the biological explanation to mental illness. The Interactionist Theory looks at the interaction between genes and the environment as indicator of the development of mental illness. For instance, an individual might have a predisposition towards a mental illness, but environmental and developmental factors will trigger its onset. Certainly, there are many facets to the complexity of the mind and its mental illnesses.

Despite the recognized complexities of mental illness, some illnesses have been shown to have genetic components as well as underlying problems with particular brain circuits and the imbalances of neurotransmitters. For instance, noradrenaline, serotonin, and dopamine are three brain chemicals that have been consistently linked with mood disorders. Changes to the levels of dopamine in an individual’s system, for example, are linked to psychosis and schizophrenia, whereas noradrenaline and serotonin are connected to the psychiatric experiences of depression and bipolar disorder.

In all three of these disorders – depression, bipolar, and schizophrenia – genes also play a role. For example, research indicates that if a twin develops Bipolar Disorder his or her twin has a greater chance of developing bipolar disorder than other siblings. Furthermore, the lifetime chance of an identical twin developing bipolar disorder, if his or her twin has already been diagnosed with the illness, will have a 40-70% chance of also being diagnosed.

The roots of mental illnesses are still being uncovered. Perhaps one day, we will be able to look at a child or infant and know right away whether he or she will develop a certain mental illness and know precisely how to prevent it. In the meantime, we will continue to rely on what we already know – the combining factors of genetics, environment, brain imbalances, and physiology – to facilitate our understanding of the cause of mental illnesses in children, adolescents, and adults.

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