Experiences of psychosis

Views about causes and triggers for mental health problems

Most people thought there was no one single cause of their mental distress. However, they could discuss events that played a role in their mental health problems, as outlined below. Other people weren’t so certain and wondered why they had developed serious mental health problems. Research also suggests that a number of factors may interact to contribute towards the development of mental health problems, such as physical, social, environmental and psychological factors
At the same time, doctors, service user groups, researchers, mental health charities and counsellors often disagree with each other about what causes psychosis. Possible physical causes for problems include people’s individual genetic make-up and the ways that this might put some people at more or less risk than others. Some experts think that the misuse of substances like cannabis can result in mental illness, or even that viruses like the flu can affect a baby’s development in the womb, and later influence their mental health.
Underlying factors can include poor attachments in early childhood and dysfunctional families. People living in a deprived neighbourhood are more likely to experience problems. Traumatic events in particular - such as child abuse, the experience of racism, sexual abuse or homophobia - can also be linked to mental health problems. Significant life events like relationship breakdowns and work stress can precipitate mental health problems.
People also mentioned things that could reduce the chances – or impact - of mental distress. Having good relationships with parents in early childhood and strong social support later in life appear to be significant protective factors. For discussion of these complex issues see websites for Rethink, The Hearing Voices Network or The Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience (IoPPN).
Not everyone spoke about traumatic experiences in their childhoods; in fact several people described their childhoods as ‘happy’ or ‘normal’ (for more see ‘Childhood and life before diagnosis’). However, many people said past trauma in their lives had contributed to their problems. Several people we spoke to had experienced emotional, sexual or physical abuse when they were children, including being the victims of severe bullying. They reported abuse perpetrated by family members, child minders, or priests. Dolly’s father had left her alone in a vulnerable situation, and she had subsequently been sexually abused. Other difficult experiences included being brought up in institutional care, or having a parent with mental health problems or who misused alcohol.
Rachel said she developed anorexia as a result of being sexually abused by an elderly uncle, and that her mental state rapidly deteriorated after that. Dolly said her dad was a ‘monster’ who physically abused her and her siblings, and left them vulnerable to later sexual abuse. People said it can be difficult to get proper professional care for the psychological aftermath of abuse.
Others felt they had been neglected or had been through other troubles, e.g. lonely childhoods, relationship problems.
Some people said that the death of a close relative or friend in their childhood had triggered their problems. A couple of people found that their mental state suffered at each anniversary of the death. Devon, a musician, thought that mental illness sometimes occurred when creative people couldn’t express their creativity properly. Karl felt that somehow black people’s experience of slavery had been passed down in their genes. However he rejected West Indian herbal treatments thinking they would not tackle the cause of his problems.
As well as talking about possible causes of mental health problems, people also talked about experiences that could make them feel worse, like experiencing rejection or feeling stressed by something (For more see ‘Strategies for everyday coping’).

Whatever explanations and understandings people reached in their own lives, most people thought that the causes for mental distress were complex and poorly understood.

Last reviewed July 2017.
Last updated April 2014.


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