First signs and possible causes

a-creek-in-spring-on-a-northern-virginia-bike-pathIt is very difficult to know in the early days what is a MH issue and what isn’t. You may notice some unusual behaviour and become worried, but of course there could be another explanation altogether. Some physical conditions produce unexpected symptoms. Secretly misusing drugs, both prescribed and un-prescribed (including alcohol) could be responsible. This is not, by itself, a MH issue.

Other factors could be a life event, perhaps bereavement, redundancy, exams or maybe leaving home for the first time. Stressful events can cause temporary changes and worrying behaviour but this may only last a short time. For example recently bereaved people can be highly emotional, crying a lot or being angry or withdrawn. With a clear recognisable reason relatives and friends may offer support until the crisis passes.

Hormonal changes can be responsible, adolescence and menopause being two key times. Our society expects teenagers to be ‘difficult’ and for people ‘of a certain age’ to act out of character, maybe buy a fast car or break up a long standing relationship. Sometimes this can be fairly extreme.

Often people will deny they are behaving differently especially if they do not acknowledge the cause. However if there is an identifiable reason then it may be a brief period that soon sorts itself out and the person returns to their more usual character and behaviour. Children can have worrying behaviour from an early age, some develop these issues from late adolescence or early twenties. These may be identified through the educational system but sometimes they are merely considered withdrawn or ‘difficult’. How can you judge what is normal adolescent behaviour? There is always the belief that a young person will ‘grow out of it’ and change with the onset of adulthood and often that is exactly what happens.

If changes do not fit with recent events, do not fade after a time or appear out of nowhere then it may be that another explanation is needed. How do you go about starting to get advice and information? This is especially difficult when the person themselves seems unconcerned and perfectly prepared to carry on, insisting that everything is fine or resenting your ‘interference’!Two of the categories of carers that have specialist services are:

Young Carers (8-25 yrs old) – These young people may have problems with their education or access to an ‘ordinary’ life because of their caring role, usually for a parent or sibling.

Armed Forces Families – Ex-servicemen and women who may have been affected by their experiences often take several years to recognise that they are not adapting to life back home. This may involve a high incidence of alcohol and drug use. Families can bear the brunt of this. For specialist services for these categories see contacts.


Mental ill health can be caused by a variety of factors, sometimes two or more together. For a lot of conditions there may be a hereditary factor, which may have skipped a generation or two. Because of changes in attitude and terminology this may mean that there is a Great Aunt somewhere who ‘had a nervous breakdown’ or was generally considered eccentric. This creates a ‘predisposing factor’, a sort of genetic weak spot within the family tree. However, many people could have a family tendency to this and may not be affected, sometimes it is ‘triggered’ and sometimes it isn’t.

It may be that a stressful event starts it; going off to University, being made redundant, being bullied or abused, etc. It is noticeable that two people can go through similar experiences and one will be barely affected and the other may change a lot. It is also important to consa-difficult-path2ider the possible use of non-prescribed drugs as this can be a factor. It is clear that certain drugs can be a major factor in triggering M.H. problems that then continue even after they are no longer used.

In the 1960s there was a lot of publicity around research that held families responsible for all M.H. problems. This is now largely disregarded. A child who has been abused in some way will, of course, be more likely to develop issues but this is far from being the sole reason, genetics play a substantial role. Sometimes there is still a stigma attached to being a parent of someone who becomes affected; hopefully not from professionals but from friends and relatives who may not be aware that a dysfunctional family is certainly not the only reason for these conditions to arise.

M.H. is not connected to intelligence or education or background; it is spread through the population nationally and internationally at all levels. Extreme and traumatic experiences such as those encountered in the Armed Forces can cause a greater incidence of mental ill health in strong, robust veterans made vulnerable by their combat experiences. As more celebrities and high profile figures go public with their diagnoses it is clear that it could affect anyone in any situation.


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