Jesuit Social Services
Understanding the Problem

Mental Health

What Causes Mental Illness?

The underlying causes of mental illness are not well understood. Mental illness is unlikely to be caused by a single factor. It is more likely to be the outcome of a combination of factors over time.

Research shows that a person is slightly more at risk of developing a mental health problem, if someone else in their family has had a mental illness. There may be a genetic or hereditary predisposition involved in getting a mental illness in some cases.

Other factors that may trigger the development of symptoms of mental illness include: stressful events, substance abuse or traumatic early life experiences.
1. Mental illness is unlikely to be caused by a single factor. It is more likely to be the outcome of a combination of factors over time.
2. Factors that may trigger the onset of symptoms of mental illness include stressful life events, substance use, traumatic early life experiences or a genetic or hereditary predisposition.
3. Some people with a mental illness use drugs to self-medicate. Alternatively, some people who use drugs develop mental health symptoms as a result of their drug use.
4. Often there is a stigma associated with having a mental illness and people who have mental health problems often feel isolated and have low self-esteem.
5. Mental illness should be thought of in a similar way to physical illness. People with a mental illness should be shown understanding, rather then judgement and blame.

Dual-diagnosis - drug use and mental health problems

Some people with mental health difficulties and in particular young people, may use drugs to "self-medicate". For example, some young people try to deal with their anxiety or depression by using illicit drugs. They may or may not be aware that they have underlying mental health issues. At other times, people who use drugs develop mental health difficulties triggered by their drug use.

Drug use can trigger psychosis in some people who are vulnerable, for example by smoking marijuana or using amphetamines (speed). Usually drug-induced psychosis is associated with the use of large quantities of a drug or drugs, over a long time.

Sometimes it is difficult to know whether the mental illness or drug use came first. Either way, both issues need to be addressed at the same time by treatment workers who specialise in treating both drug problems and mental health issues.

Is it their fault?

Mental illness should be thought of in a similar way to physical illness. It is often harder to understand or respond to mental illness, because you can't "see" it. But this doesn't mean that there is nothing wrong or that it is easily fixed. It is not the person's fault that they are having difficulties and they need to be shown understanding rather than judgement or blame. They may need to be supported to gain suitable treatment and answers may not be straightforward.

Very often there is a stigma attached to people with mental illnesses, due to misunderstandings. People with a mental illness are often very concerned about what other people will think of them. They often have very low self-esteem, feel very different to others and alone. Family members and peers sometimes think that the person with the mental health problem should just "snap out of it", which is neither realistic nor helpful.

It is good to try to get as much information as you can about what you or your family member may be experiencing. Please refer to the 'Other Useful Links' listed on this page or contact your local Community Health Service or local community mental health clinic.
More about Mental Health
What is a Mental Illness?
Suicidal Behaviour
What Causes Mental Illness?
How Do I Know if it's a
Mental Illness?
Diagnosis and Who Can Help?
Support Services
What Else Can I Do?
Related Help Sheets
Need a Helping Hand?
Other Useful Links
SANE Australia
Mental Illness Fellowship Victoria
Anxiety Disorders Association
of Victoria
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