Causes for the Development of Mental Illness in Youth - On Second Thought: from Iffy to Witty Thoughts
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Causes for the Development of Mental Illness in Youth

Causes for the Development of Mental Illness in Youth

Mental illness does not discriminate who it will afflict and while many people feel like childhood is a carefree time in life, this is when most mental illnesses will begin to develop. The onset of mental health symptoms generally occurs when most children are entering into puberty. The American Psychiatric Association identifies that 50% of mental illness starts before the age of 14 and 75% by young adulthood. What causes mental illness to afflict people in their youth?

Adolescents are at risk for mood disorders and eating disorders. There are several factors that make a young person susceptible to developing a psychiatric illness. These can be identified in two main categories: Biological and Environmental factors.

Biological Factors

As psychiatric illness afflicts an organ, the brain, it is not surprising that biological factors are one of the main contributing factors to the onset of mental health symptoms. Science tells us that the neurotransmitters in the brain, the chemicals that predict our moods and help nerve cells communicate with one another, contribute to the development of symptoms of depression, anxiety, and other mental health problems. It is widely accepted that balancing these chemicals using medications can improve symptoms, but the brain is too complicated to say that the level of a neurotransmitter in a person’s brain has, is solely what causes these symptoms.

The brain is a complex organ; therefore, many factors are likely related to the onset of mental health symptoms. While genetics likely has a role, recent research has found evidence that structural changes in the brain are associated with depression. A study published in the Journal of Neuroscience in 1999 reports that women with depression had a smaller hippocampus, about 9 to 13 % smaller. There is belief that stress may play a role in this, as stress can impact the production of neurons in that part of the brain. Genetic predisposition for changes or abnormalities in brain development may also contribute to increased likelihood of developing mental health symptoms.

Youth are also at risk of developing mental health symptoms related to prenatal damage to the brain from maternal substance use, illness, or trauma. Additionally, research tells us a youth’s own substance use may result in organic changes to the brain. There is strong empirical support for the relationship between alcohol use and depression and amphetamines and anxiety and paranoia.

Physical injury to the brain is another strong risk factor for adolescents. Young people tend to take more risks, engage in unsafe practices and do not always possess good decision-making skills to help avoid potential danger. Injuries such as traumatic brain injuries caused by sports injuries or car accidents predispose the individual for increased mental health symptoms.

Environmental Factors

External factors also play a large role in the development of mental health symptoms in youth. These are defined as environmental risk factors that pose a psychological risk to the individual. These risks are generally experienced over a period of time, are pervasive, and traumatic. Adolescence is a very stressful time, as a critical stage in development as it will impact how the person will view and interact with the world throughout their life. There are many pressures on young people at this age, including social acceptance and inclusion, academic performance, and emotional and physical maturation. These pressures offer increased risk of environmental risk factors. These may include:

  • Bullying or social exclusion
  • Unstable home environment
  • Sexual or physical abuse
  • Witnessing a traumatic event
  • Being a victim of violence
  • Feelings of inadequacy, low self-esteem, or dissatisfaction with physical appearance or weight
  • Young people are at increased risk of developing mental health problems in relation to environmental factors

The World Health Organization (WHO) has identified that environmental risk factors play a greater role in the development of mental health concerns for young people due to the formative nature of this period of life. For example, peer acceptance and inclusion is a strong influence on a youth’s overall happiness. A report in the 2018 European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry journal reviewed a body of research on the impact of bullying on mental health. It was concluded that the long term consequences of bullying on the development of mental health problems and “deserves a high level of attention and efforts in the field of child and adolescent psychiatry.”

In conclusion, understanding the potential influences on good mental health or the development of psychiatric illness for youth can guide research, education, prevention, and overall mental health care to support the well-being of young people.