Woman struggling with her mental health.

Common Mental Illness Causes: Triggers and Warning Signs

Struggling with mental health conditions affects your daily life and isolates you from your loved ones. Remember, mental health is just as important as your physical health; it can even hurt your physical well-being if not addressed. Treat mental illness the way you would any medical condition – with help from qualified and caring medical providers.

How can you spot a mental disorder that requires specialized health care? If you feel that you or a loved one might have a mental health condition, familiarizing yourself with mental illness causes and warning signs can be key in determining when it’s time to seek help.

What Causes Mental Health Problems?

While there are no clear-cut answers when it comes to the causes of mental illness, there are several risk factors associated with developing mental health problems.

Biological Factors

Some biological conditions have been linked to an increased susceptibility when it comes to developing a mental illness.


If you have family members with mental health issues, then you are more likely to develop one yourself. However, it is important to note that having a relative with mental health issues does not guarantee that you will have one. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, while certain genes are associated with developing mental health issues, they only increase the chance of developing mental health issues by a small amount. It typically takes a combination of several factors to develop a mental illness.

Illness and Injury

Infections, especially those that cause fever and swelling in the brain, can increase the likelihood of developing mental illnesses. Damage to specific areas of the brain can also increase the likelihood of developing a mental health disorder.

Brain Chemistry and Development

Studies show that the size of certain regions of the brain and how well they communicate with one another can play a role in developing mood disorders and other mental health issues.

Substance Use

Long-term exposure to substances that change your brain chemistry, as well as substance dependence, can increase your chances of developing a mental illness.

Poor Nutrition

A poor diet can result in the development of mental illness issues or worsen an already present condition.

Environmental Factors

Our living conditions and certain life events can directly affect mental well-being. Major changes and environmental factors can increase your likelihood of developing a mental illness.

Poverty and Homelessness

The long-term stress of major financial issues can lead to mental health disorders. Furthermore, the isolation and fear accompanying homelessness increases the likelihood of mental disorders.


Experiencing abuse, verbally or physically, can increase your chances of developing low self-esteem and lead to long-term or severe mental illnesses. This is an especially common cause among adolescents who experience bullying.

Traumatic Events

If you experience something traumatic – whether a single traumatic event or a long-term traumatic situation – it will make you more likely to develop mental illnesses, such as post-traumatic stress disorder and major depression.

Life Events

It’s not hard to imagine how divorce, death, or a serious medical diagnosis, such as heart disease, can lead to mental health issues. However, other life events like the birth of a child or even a graduation can increase the likelihood of developing a mental illness.


Feeling alone can increase your chances of developing a mental illness. The prevalence of anxiety and mood disorders rose 25% during the pandemic due in part to the isolation of quarantine. Having a strong community is closely associated with mental well-being – so periods of prolonged loneliness can lead to developing mental health problems.

Psychological Factors

Like both environmental factors and biological factors, certain psychological conditions increase your chances of developing mental health issues. Psychological predispositions for mental health conditions include the following:

Negative Thought Patterns and Habits

If you have a habit of thinking negatively, then this thought pattern can contribute to the possibility of developing a mental health issue. This stems from your environment but can last long after you’ve removed yourself from an unhealthy living space. Developing a healthier mindset is an important part of mental well-being.

Low Self-Esteem

Similar to having a negative mindset, having a low opinion of yourself increases your chances of developing mood disorders or major depression. While this often stems from living environment, it can continue to affect you and eventually become a psychological habit.

Heightened Emotional Responses

Some emotional responses are the result of our brain chemistry, and some are learned from our environment while we are growing up. Having heightened emotional responses – such as immediately feeling anxious or entering into fight or flight mode over small conflicts associated with daily life – can lead to mental health problems if not addressed.

Warning Signs and Risk Factors of Common Mental Health Disorders

Our environment, our biology, and our own thought patterns can all play a role in our mental health. However, there are a wide range of mental health disorders. For an accurate diagnosis, schedule an appointment with a licensed mental health provider.

The health information below is not intended to provide a diagnosis but can help inform your discussion about seeking mental health services.


Common Risk Factors:

      • Genetics
      • Substance Use

Common Warning Signs:

      • Periods of psychosis
      • Losing touch with reality

Bipolar Disorder

Common Risk Factors:

      • Genetics (primarily a parent or sibling)
      • Traumatic events
      • Prolonged stress or substance use

Common Warning Signs:

      • Mood swings (depression to mania or vice versa)
      • Frequent weight gain or loss
      • Changes in speech patterns and behaviors

Anxiety Disorder

Common Risk Factors:

      • Traumatic events
      • Elevated stress
      • Co-occurring mental health disorders

Common Warning Signs:

      • Excessive fear and worry
      • Feeling restless
      • Phobias

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Common Risk Factors:

      • Traumatic events
      • Ongoing trauma
      • Co-occurring anxiety disorders

Common Warning Signs:

      • Panic attacks or extreme fear
      • Nightmares
      • Flashbacks to the trauma

Eating Disorders

Common Risk Factors:

      • Low self-esteem
      • Mood disorders or other co-occurring mental health issues
      • External pressure, particularly with women

Common Warning Signs:

      • Frequent changes in weight
      • Binge eating, purging, or avoiding meals

Substance Abuse

Common Risk Factors:

      • Family history
      • Stress
      • Co-occurring mental health problems, particularly major depression

Common Warning Signs:

      • Physical dependence
      • Self-isolation
      • Low self-esteem

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

 Common Risk Factors:

      • Genetics
      • Teenagers and women are at higher risk
      • Experiencing traumatic events in adolescence

Common Warning Signs:

      • Agitation
      • Repetition of movements or words
      • Compulsive behaviors

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

Common Risk Factors:

      • Genetics
      • Environmental factors, particularly during pregnancy

Common Warning Signs:

      • Difficulty concentrating
      • Daydreaming
      • Fidgeting


Common Risk Factors:

      • Genetics
      • Environmental factors, particularly during pregnancy

Common Warning Signs:

      • Difficulty communicating
      • Avoiding eye contact
      • Sensitivity to noise or textures

Major Depression

Common Risk Factors:

      • Family history
      • Environmental factors
      • Psychological causes
      • Loss of a loved one
      • Exposure to trauma or abuse

Common Warning Signs:

      • Long periods of low moods and energy
      • Disinterest in favorite activities
      • Persistent sadness
      • Thoughts of self-harm or suicide


*If you or a loved one is having thoughts of self-harm or suicide, contact the American National Suicide Hotline by dialing or texting 988 or locate your country’s crisis hotline to speak with a counselor.

**If this is an emergency, dial 911.

Find Help for Your Mental Health

The first step to addressing mental health issues is to seek a diagnosis from a mental health professional. There is support and hope for a better tomorrow no matter what mental health issue(s) you’re struggling with. Mental illness causes us to isolate ourselves, but you don’t have to go through this alone.

At Meridian HealthCare, we believe in holistic healing and are here to help with yours. If you’re concerned about your mental health, we have licensed therapists ready to assist you. The road to recovery is waiting. All you have to do is reach out.