Mental health: ethnic minority experiences

Views about causes of mental health problems: individual factors


Research suggests that various factors may interact and cause or contribute to the development of mental health problems, including physical, social, environmental and psychological factors. Here, people talk about what they believe caused their mental health problems. This summary focuses on individual factors; social and environmental factors are discussed elsewhere (see 'Views about causes of mental health problems: social & environmental factors'). 

Some people identified a range of factors building up over time rather than any one single cause for their mental health condition, whereas others pinpointed one specific factor or incident. People also distinguished triggers from causes, an underlying predisposition to develop a mental health problem that can be set in motion by any one of a number of factors [see Edward below].

Wanting to know “why me?”
Many people said they were unsure why they were experiencing mental health problems. As one person commented, “I couldn't think of a reason why I'm sad”. Some said they would like an explanation and had tried to find out more. One man felt sure that he was not experiencing reactive depression (depression that is triggered by a traumatic or difficult event).

Some had read books or research or had been informed by their doctor about possible causes, including one woman who was told “different people get it for different reasons”. A few said they had not been given any explanation by their doctor, including one man whose doctor couldn't find a reason for his bipolar disorder. Some thought it helped (or would be helpful) to know, “once you find a problem you can find a solution”. Several people asked, “why me?” [see Ataur below], although one woman thought there was no point asking herself a question she couldn't answer, and instead asked “Why not you?”.

Even where people said they didn't know what caused their mental health problems they identified potential causes or triggers, contributory factors and things that made their mental health problems worse. Many referred to a combination of factors, “it was everything together, all of them were building up inside me”. 

Many people identified physical and other characteristics in themselves or identified aspects of their behaviour that they felt might explain why they had developed mental health problems rather than other people.

Increased vulnerability & genetic explanations
Some felt they were particularly vulnerable to mental health problems because of their personality or their physical health. Several people talked about having a sensitive, over-analytical or perfectionist personality, including one woman who experienced anxiety who suggested that, “it's just not me but it's something, a condition that human beings suffer from”. Others mentioned not sleeping or eating properly, glandular fever, heart surgery, menopause and pregnancy as causes. One man said he became depressed when he was refused medication (see Raj's story).

Some people talked about the role of a genetic component in explaining mental health problems: they believed that mental health problems ran in their family or they had inherited them, especially where they were able to identify members of their immediate or extended family with a mental health problem or whose behaviour and personality was similar to their own. 

Others questioned the idea of a genetic link, however, including one woman who was the third person to be diagnosed in her family but didn't know if she agreed with that theory or not “because I have two brothers and two sisters and they are ok”. One man, who believed he “inherited some of the personality traits” from his grandmother, thought mental health problems could be a “genetic or physical condition”. Another man believed that his father, although undiagnosed, had social anxiety, and wondered whether he had learnt and not inherited his anxiety from him. Others referred to a chemical imbalance or the brain not producing serotonin.

Another woman used the term “historical anger” to refer to the anger she felt about her home country being invaded and which she felt contributed to her nervous breakdown.

One man thought that his mental health problems may have stemmed from his ancestors making an agreement with the devil, and another woman thought that someone had put a spell on her.

Behavioural explanations
Many people believed that they were, to some extent, responsible for their mental health problems. Some believed that their behaviour may have caused their mental health problems, including one woman who believed that, “Illnesses don't come for free. All the mistakes that we make, we pay for them and that's how I feel; I'm paying for my mistakes”. Others felt responsible because they worried too much, had taken on too much and “burnt out”, weren't doing enough to try to improve their situation or hadn't developed the coping skills to be able deal with life. Some felt that their guilt had contributed to their illness.

On the other hand, others saw their mental health problems as a coping strategy that had developed in response to their experiences. (See Jay's story) Some thought that mental health problems were caused by using drugs such as cannabis or marijuana, although one man didn't think his use of hash and weed had a part in his depression (find out more about drugs and mental health). A few felt that mental health problems might be caused by stifling creativity' “if you don't release it, it causes you problems”.

Last reviewed September 2018.

Last updated November 2010.


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