Mental illness is a condition that affects a person’s thinking, feeling or mood. According to current statistics, approximately 450 million people around the globe suffer from mental health condition, placing it among the leading causes of ill health and disability worldwide. Studies show that one in four people in the world will be affected by mental or neurological disorders at some point in their lives.

Mental illness is an umbrella term that refers to a wide range of mental health conditions including anxiety disorders, eating disorders, depression, schizophrenia and addictive disorders. The main cause of mental illness is not known but experts say it can be caused by a combination of genetic, biological, psychological and environmental factors as explained below.

Biological factors

Genetics (heredity): People who have a family member with mental illness are more likely to develop one.

Infections: Certain infections have been linked to brain damage and the development of mental illness or the worsening of its symptoms.

Brain injury: Injury to certain areas of the brain have also been linked to some mental illnesses.

Prenatal damage: Some researches suggest that a disruption of early foetal brain development or trauma that occurs at the time of birth, for instance, loss of oxygen to the brain, may cause mental illness.

Substance abuse: Long term substance abuse have been linked to anxiety, depression and paranoia.

Environmental factors

The following environmental factors can lead to mental illness.

Death or divorce

A dysfunctional family life

Feelings of inadequacy, low self-esteem, anxiety, anger, or loneliness

Changing jobs or schools

Substance abuse

Social or cultural expectations (for example, a society that associates beauty with thinness can be a factor in the development of eating disorders such as bulimia nervosa.)

Psychological factors

Severe psychological trauma suffered as a child such as emotional, physical, or sexual abuse, a significant early loss such as the loss of a parent, neglect, and poor ability to relate with others can also contribute to mental illness.

Symptoms of mental illness

Signs and symptoms of mental illness vary depending on the disorder, circumstances and other factors. Some of the most common symptoms include loss of interest in others hence withdrawal, an unusual drop in performance in class or at work place, odd, uncharacteristic and peculiar behaviour, and alcohol or drug abuse. In other cases, mental illness manifests as suicidal thinking, excessive anger, hostility or violence, inability to cope with daily problems or stress and trouble understanding and relating to situations and people.

Sometimes symptoms of a mental health disorder can appear as physical problems, such as stomach pain, back pain, headache, or other unexplained aches and pains.

Treating mental illness

According to World Health Organization (WHO), mental illness treatments are available but nearly two thirds of patients never seek medical treatment. Stigma, discrimination and neglect prevent healthcare providers from reaching patients. Like other chronic illnesses, mental illness requires an on going treatment. Many mental conditions can be effectively treated with one or a combination of the following therapies:



Group therapy

Day treatment or partial hospital treatment

Specific therapies, such as cognitive behaviour therapy and behaviour


Other treatments available include:

Alternative therapies such as water therapy, massage, and biofeedback

Creative therapies including art therapy, music therapy, or play therapy

Hypnotherapy – using hypnosis as a therapeutic technique

When diagnosed early and treated properly, about eight in 10 people suffering from mental illness fully recover or are able to successfully control their symptoms.

Published October 2016