Mental health: ethnic minority experiences

Views about causes of mental health problems: social & environmental 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 social and environmental factors; individual factors are discussed elsewhere (see 'Views about causes of mental health problems: individual factors).

Many people we talked to believed that various social and environmental factors led to the development of their mental health problems. Some people identified a range of factors building up over time rather than any one single cause, whereas others pinpointed one specific factor or incident. People also said that there was a difference between 'triggers' and 'causes', an underlying predisposition to mental health problems that can be set in motion by any one of a number of factors (see Edward's story).

Work, finances and housing
Some thought that they developed mental health problems because of work or business problems and the associated stress. For a few people, being unemployed or unable to work was a factor. One woman believed that wealth and inequalities in society contributed to ill-health and thought that her degree level education and attempts to escape poverty were unnatural and caused her nervous breakdown.

Others mentioned money problems - although one man said he didn't think poverty was a factor in his case - and either losing their home or living in poor quality housing. Although some thought migration “or the hardship adapting to British society” might have contributed to their mental health problems, others emphasised that they didn't think this was a factor for them. 

Relationships & upbringing
Many people thought that their family and social relationships had affected their mental health. Some mentioned having bad relationships, marital problems or splitting up from partners. [See Jay below] They also believed that not having a partner or friends, being lonely and feeling unsupported or unloved contributed to their mental health problems (see Devon's story). A few people thought not having anyone close enough to talk to about their problems played a part: “I could not express my sorrows and that's why it was not going away from my mind”.

Lots of people we interviewed felt that their upbringing and relationship with their parents was an important factor. They described being subjected to strict rules and being under pressure to do specific things, for example doing well academically or losing weight. A few people described their mothers treating them particularly harshly, including forcing them to eat or diet, accusing them of having inappropriate sexual relations and punishing them physically. One woman described being rejected by her father because he didn't believe she was his biological daughter.

Other people had been separated from their parents or surrogate parents as children and felt their mental health problems stemmed from this (also see 'Onset of mental health problems'). 

Some people experienced confusion about their identity, especially where their upbringing was at odds with their ethnic and cultural background, sometimes following migration (theirs or their parents). People talked about the difficulties of growing up amongst the White majority and not being able to identify with the culture of their background; sometimes this was because of their parents' choice to adopt a 'White, western culture' - as one woman said, “my mother was very adamant that we should live an English existence and we should eat sausages and mash rather than yam and plantain”. Being of mixed heritage created problems for the identity of some people. For others, confusion about their identity arose as a result of being in local authority care. 

Another woman felt that being labelled as “abnormal and in need of psychiatric treatment” became a self-fulfilling prophecy which meant that she saw herself as different from other people. She also felt that the pressures on women in society may have contributed to her having an eating disorder.

One woman reported many traumatic experiences that together led to her schizoaffective disorder, including witnessing her parents' arguments and having her own baby before she felt ready to become a mother. Other people described how conflicts, tensions and lack of contact with members of their immediate and extended family, including in-laws, contributed to their mental health problems. One man said that the difficulties he experienced after arranging two marriages (one for his brother and one for his son) caused him so much worry that he became depressed.

People also had other beliefs about what may have caused their mental health problems. Some felt that God was trying to “torture” them or had put a curse on them. One woman felt that she had been rejected by God and this had triggered her depression (see 'The role of faith, religion & spirituality for people with mental health problems'). Others thought that hearing the voice of God might trigger psychosis, or that reading religious texts could add to feelings of depression. 

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Traumatic events
Many people felt that traumatic events in their life had triggered their mental health problems: “my brain, it was just in overload”. They mentioned being subjected to bullying and violence, being violent towards others and witnessing violence and murder. A few women had experienced domestic violence, which one woman described as “like a stain spreading through my life”. 

Lots of people mentioned bereavement, including one woman who experienced 6 miscarriages and a few who had relations who'd been murdered. As one man said, bereavement “just gets hold of you, you can't shove it off”. 

Many people we talked to felt that their mental health problems were connected to experiences of being sexually and physically abused in childhood at the hands of their family or whilst in the care of the local authority.

Others mentioned experiences of racism in the form of bullying, physical and verbal assaults and other kinds of attacks. One woman said that the BME hostel where she stayed 'diagnosed' racism as a cause of her mental health problems. One man however, who also experienced racism, did not feel that this played a part in his mental health problems.

Last reviewed September 2018.

Last updated February 2013.


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