THE 6 ROOT CAUSES OF MENTAL HEALTH ISSUES

By: MIGHTY PURSUIT TEAM

It would certainly be an understatement to say there has been an explosion of mental health issues that has spanned across the West in the last few decades. Including comorbidities, an estimated 53 million Americans suffer from either PTSD, OCD, Bipolar Disorder, Social Anxiety, Schizophrenia or Clinical Depression. Keep in mind, these are only the people that have been diagnosed. This is nearly 25% of the adult population in the United States. Every one in four people we interact with may be suffering from one of these illnesses. The problem goes deeper when you consider those that don’t have a mental disorder, yet suffer with the general anxieties of life or seasonal depression. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say a good portion of us have experienced what it is like to be suffering with our mental health. We may not voice it, but we quietly suffer in silence. A stigma remains surrounding mental illness, especially with men, a hesitancy to talk about it out of fear of being judged, rejected or misunderstood. Which all goes to say… where on Earth did all of this come from? Was it always etched into the fabric of our existence, yet the only difference is that modern science has been able to put common language to these conditions? Or has there been some sort of shift in our current age that has produced this widespread and all-encompassing epidemic? There are real-world consequences to these questions, as it affects our ability to function across our relationships, our faith and our work, not to mention simply being present in showing up for everyday life. And so the short answer to all of this is well... it's complicated. There are multiple factors involved, sometimes one or more, which we’ll cover today. But just to be clear, this is not meant to diagnose you. From fellow mental health sufferers, this guide is designed to inform you of possibilities that could potentially be influencing your mental health.

GENETICS

As our culture seeks to find answers to these questions, some would propel the idea that mental health issues are primarily genetic or that there’s some sort of chemical imbalance within our brains. It’s almost as if with this theory, we are essentially communicating that mental health issues are an inevitability, not a possibility. It’s a destiny that some of us are simply fated for, if only because it’s within our genes. This is critical, because if true, it leaves many of us feeling powerless, propelled into this sort of reactive state of being, where we simply have to just manage. Outside of medication, there’s not much we can do. This is our life. So is this really true? Yes and no. Science has discovered that the neurotransmitters in the brain, like serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine do influence our levels of happiness. So yes, some of us actually do have an imbalance in our brain chemistry. But this fact can often lead us to the same conclusion, that mental health issues are inevitable, because well, we have a chemical imbalance. As if the imbalance just happens and it’s inevitable. The key part we miss or overlook is what causes these imbalances. In many cases, imbalances can just be a symptom of an underlying issue, such as stressful life events, environmental factors or a poor diet. For example, in the case of depression Harvard Medical School puts it this way: “​​It's often said that depression results from a chemical imbalance, but that figure of speech doesn't capture how complex the disease is. Research suggests that depression doesn't spring from simply having too much or too little of certain brain chemicals. Rather, there are many possible causes of depression, including faulty mood regulation by the brain, genetic vulnerability, stressful life events, medications, and medical problems. It's believed that several of these forces interact to bring on depression.” While reading this, we may still hyperfocus on genetic vulnerabilities. What if we have an “OCD gene” or a “depression gene” that is in fact the underlying issue? In fact, a recent study by researchers at MIT and Harvard revealed that four genes are commonly associated with OCD, including the NRXN1, HTR2A, CTTNBP2 and REEP3 genes. Separately, a multitude of studies have connected certain genes to the development of Schizophrenia. As we browse through these studies, key lines catch our attention, such as the “ABC gene makes it 4-5x more likely to develop [insert] mental disorder.” But what we fail to correlate is that if the baseline vulnerability to develop a particular disorder was say, 1% to begin with, there’s still a fairly low percentage that the illness would manifest solely based on genetics. There are still plenty of unknowns related to gene expression and the activation of those specific genes. We might not like ambiguity, but science has yet to make the advancements that would give us concrete answers as to how, when and why certain genes get activated. But this doesn’t leave us in the dark. What we can identify from a broad level are the likely factors involved with regulating brain chemistry and gene expression, such as environmental, digital, circumstantial and ideological influences.

ENVIRONMENTAL

One of the biggest differences between our generation and those that lived in previous centuries are our eating habits. Particularly, over the last 100 years the amount of processed food and GMOs we consume has skyrocketed. Research strongly suggests the additives and genetically modified organisms that are put into our food are not only causing physical health issues, but mental health issues. To which Harvard Medical School recently said: “For many years, the medical field did not fully acknowledge the connection between mood and food. The burgeoning field of nutritional psychiatry is [now] finding there are many consequences and correlations between not only what you eat, how you feel, and how you ultimately behave, but also the kinds of bacteria that live in your gut.” Why is gut bacteria important? Because it is directly linked to our conversation above about chemical imbalances. In a 2015 Atlantic piece entitled When Gut Bacteria Change Brain Function they wrote: “Scientists have found that gut bacteria produce neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine and GABA, all of which play a key role in mood (many antidepressants increase levels of these same compounds).” The rise of food additives and genetically modified organisms can be tied to the catalytic ascent of fast food restaurants and food conglomerates over the past 100 years, who are primarily focused on profits, not health. Remarkably, this is one of the most underreported injustices that is plaguing the United States, as many of these companies are aware of the harmful things they’re putting into our food, but continue to put them in there. Case in point... just two national food chains (Chipotle and Panera) do not put GMOs into their food. And even though many of these additives and GMOs are banned in other countries, the loose regulations from the FDA allow the food industry to use them.

As recently as September of 2021, Burger King publicly announced that they were banning 120 artificial ingredients that had previously been in their food. Which begs the question, what were they doing in there to begin with?

The levels of corruption to this problem run deep. It’s not as if we can just easily run away from the wide-ranging effects of it. If you want to eat clean, it’s not easy. You need to be educated on the topic and know what to buy from where, because processed food and GMOs are seemingly at every turn. Turn over the packaging at your local grocery store and you’ll likely find additives that are banned in some countries. In fact, the majority of convenience stores and airports only carry these types of processed foods. But we would be doing a disservice to say that the food industry is the only environmental culprit that is affecting our mental health. “The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that worldwide 9 out of 10 people will inhale polluted air. Air pollutants can also cause serious neurocognitive effects—ranging from behavioral variations to neurodegenerative disorders—that ultimately can have devastating effects on mental health,” a 2019 study concluded. This is a different industry, but ultimately the same story. Look no further than the emissions scandal at Volkswagen from 2008 to 2015, as featured in Netflix’s Dirty Money. Volkswagen was installing a particular type of software into its vehicles, commonly called cheat devices, which detected when the car was being put through emissions tests. Once the vehicle was approved and on the road, these devices helped conceal the actual amount of nitrogen oxide being released into the air. The result? A 2017 New York Times article reveals, “The researchers found that when tested on the road, some cars emitted almost 40 times the permitted levels of nitrogen oxides. Over a number of years, 11 million vehicles were deceptively approved with these cheat devices, infecting people all across the globe with a gas that is linked to mental health issues and respiratory diseases. Why did Volkswagen do this? Once the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the United States tightened up emissions standards in 2004, “it was too difficult to meet the new standards while maintaining engine performance and staying on budget,” Newsweek reported. So again, we run into the same problem as we did with the food industry. Systemic corruption driven by greed. Companies that cut corners and are able to leverage legal loopholes in the name of the mighty dollar. All of this may sound rather disheartening, but we are not powerless. Collectively we can create change. And this doesn’t require becoming an activist, either. The odds might be stacked against us, but we can start improving our mental health today by making a concentrated effort to change our diet and eliminate harmful additives that impact our brain chemistry. We also can also move forward by being thoughtful about the vehicles we purchase, demanding transparency from automakers.

DIGITAL

As we consider additional causes of mental health issues, we may just be living in the most challenging age in history, if only because of what we’re exposed to. The average human, at least in the West, is quite literally connected to everything and anything at any given time. What has that done to our mental health? In 2020, the Emmy-Award nominated Social Dilemma gave us some clues. Through this documentary, tech experts from Silicon Valley brought us a behind-the-scenes look into the ugly reality of how our mental health is being monetized. We saw how tech giants like Facebook and Google have designed products that create a false sense of urgency and distraction. “Digital notifications trigger the salience network of our brains, sending signals that something is urgent. This creates a series of false alarms, compromising our ability to discern what is urgent and encouraging multitasking that affects our brains.” Social comparison is also something that hits a little too close to home. “Likes can trigger powerful reward centers creating a lasting mark on our self-worth. This use of social validation combined with programming us to only share snippets of our lives that will elicit a response has normalized unhealthy social comparison.” As eye-opening as these problems are, the adverse effects of the digital age are sadly not limited to social networking. Take the little device inside your pocket for instance. Research tends to be all over the place on the subject of screen time, but generally speaking Americans spend between five to ten hours a day on their devices. Brits also come in with a similar time usage. If you aren’t buying into the research, pop open your phone right now. Head over to the Screen Time (iOS) or Digital Wellbeing (Android) app. What number does it say? Author of Dopamine Nation, Dr. Anne Lembke has some piercing words on the subject:

“The smartphone is the modern-day hypodermic needle, delivering digital dopamine 24/7 for a wired generation. As such we’ve all become vulnerable to compulsive overconsumption.”

One of the most foremost authorities on addiction around the globe, Dr. Lembke is the Medical Director of Addiction Medicine at Stanford and has spent 25-plus years treating patients with every sort of addiction you can imagine. We might find the word addiction to be taboo within our generation, as if it’s only a term reserved for those strung out on heroin in the back of an alley. But Dr. Lembke doesn’t mince words, we have all quite literally become dopamine junkies. All this goes to say, when used irresponsibly, social networks and smartphones are having a major impact on our mental health. Together with the rise of porn and the 24/7 negative news cycle, we get the so-called Four Horseman of the digital age. Travel back just 25 years ago and these problems didn’t exist. Back then, Mark Zuckerberg was still in middle school. Larry Page and Sergey Brin had just met at Stanford. Steve Jobs wasn’t even back at Apple yet for his second stint. But while digital is something unique to our day, there are other circumstantial factors impacting our mental health that have existed throughout the generations.

CIRCUMSTANTIAL

The majority of us didn’t choose the circumstances that we grew up in. The family we were born into, the geographical location in the world, the socioeconomic situation -- all of these things were chosen for us. And thus, we didn’t choose to grow up in a broken home. We didn’t choose to be sexually abused, bullied and/or discriminated against. We didn’t choose poverty. We didn’t choose to be treated as less than, but we were just the same. In fact, it is remarkable how essential the emotional bond is between a parent and a child in early development. If these relationships do not progress as they should and we don’t receive the love we need, it can leave us quite jacked up. A 2010 report from Harvard University says of the subject: “Experiences are built into our bodies and significant adversity early in life can produce biological “memories” that lead to lifelong impairments in both physical and mental health.” We may not even remember these “biological memories” but they’ve been hardwired into the structuring of our brains. It could simply have been a parent being absent or unresponsive, dealing with issues of their own when we were an infant. For some of us though, the memories are quite vivid and painful. So much so, that we’d prefer not to revisit them. We don’t want to travel back into that bedroom, that bathroom stall or that bar.

We don’t want to remember what it was like around the dinner table as a teenager. We don’t like thinking about what social life was like in high school. We don’t want to feel what we felt in that moment, so we spend our lives running, medicating and/or avoiding.

Once-thought to be something unique to military officers or first responders, our understanding of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) has expanded in recent decades. Nearly eight million adults in the United States struggle with this condition every single year. That’s 3.6% of the population. This doesn’t mean that everyone who has experienced trauma will develop this condition, rather it exists on a spectrum of intensity and sometimes the symptoms aren’t so obvious to those around us. Regardless of whether your personal situation fits under the umbrella of trauma, there is a common denominator for all of us. It is that our personal experiences shape who we become, for better or for worse. Our past informs the stories that we believe and how we interact with the world. And that brings us to perhaps one of the most important root causes of mental illness, which are what we would call ideological factors.

IDEOLOGICAL

Dictionary.com defines ideology as, “the body of doctrine, myth, belief, etc., that guides an individual, social movement, institution, class, or large group.” We all live our lives by an ideology, a system of beliefs that we carry which shapes the way we interact with the world around us. The common thread between the genetic, environmental, digital and circumstantial factors influencing our mental health is that they are all driving us toward a set of beliefs to live our lives by. Case in point, for rape victims, that painful experience will inevitably shape their beliefs about themselves and others. It will shape future interactions and relationships. For OCD sufferers, let’s just say that something in their food activated their disorder, this would then in-turn shape how they think, act and behave in many facets of life. If a combination of digital and circumstantial factors have driven someone to believe that being vulnerable is weak, they will shy away from opening up and loneliness will be the end result, ultimately leaving a substantial impact on their mental health. For those struggling with social comparison, the questions around self-worth could lead them to believe that they need to prove themselves, leading to workaholism, depression and burnout.

In the end, what we see in a vast majority of mental health issues is that they are intricately tied to what we believe and the stories we tell ourselves.

Which is why highly effective psychotherapeutic treatments such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) are aimed at changing and challenging cognitive distortions, beliefs and thought patterns. Here we are confronted with the ultimate question, what do we actually believe? What is true? If I was relentlessly bullied in high school, causing me to spiral into depression over the idea that I am not enough, CBT is a powerful tool that would help me swap out that narrative for a better one. Over time, it would train me to think that I am in-fact enough. But as powerful (and needed) as psychotherapeutic practices like CBT are, we ultimately find that they function best as a means, not an end. There is a boundary to how effective they can be for our mental health issues. Why? Because the reality is I can work to rewire my brain to adapt a better narrative and a less destructive thinking pattern, but what is tethering me to that narrative? What makes it true? They said I wasn’t enough in high school, so why should I believe that I am? Are people the ultimate authority over my worth? Or is it my own fragile opinion? How do I know that other men won’t be like my rapist? How will I ever feel safe again? How could someone do this? As a first responder to the COVID-19 pandemic, what am I to make of the unthinkably horrific things I saw? Is all this pain and suffering pointless? Is suffering with type 2 bipolar my lot in life? Is there any purpose in the deep pain of my depression? What greater hope is there to hold onto? By nature, suffering raises existential questions. So in order for us to fully heal, at least as much as possible in this life, we need existential answers.

EXISTENTIAL

If these last couple years have taught us anything, it’s safe to say that many of us have had a sense that the world isn’t as it should be. Racial trauma, political divides, global pandemics -- this is a lot for the human mind to bear. And as we mentioned above, we often cannot change the circumstances that we live in. We cannot change the fact COVID-19 has happened. We can’t choose to avoid being born into a broken home. We cannot change the fact we have suffered from trauma. But we can change what we believe and how we respond. This is where a Jewish rabbi comes into the picture, one who walked the streets of Jerusalem 2,000 years ago. Perhaps the most famous figure in all of human history, we are invited to consider the cosmic implications Jesus has on our existence. In contemplating who he was, we discover that he too had a sense that the world isn’t as it should be. This is why from the beginning of his journey around ancient Israel, he brought the message, “repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 4:17) In the original Greek language, repent can be translated as metanoia, which simply means to change one’s mind, in order to think or live in a new way. The second part of that phrase, “the kingdom of heaven” refers to a divine movement that was about to take place, in which God brings the world back into order, realigning it to how it was always designed to be. He is bringing us back to what we see in the Garden of Eden. Without getting lost in a conversation about the historical Adam and Eve, the gist of this story is that things were in fact perfect in the beginning. Humans were created to reflect a loving God, born with an inherent sense of self-worth and commuting in perfect harmony with one another. But as we fast forward to Genesis 3, we see that humans start to rebel, ultimately infecting the world with sin. And what exactly is sin? In its most basic form, this word αμαρτία translates to missing the mark. Think in terms of archery, like Katniss in Hunger Games. So when we rebel as humans, we miss the mark on what God originally had intended for his perfect world. Something is off. We see this throughout the genetic, environmental, digital and circumstantial factors that play into our mental health issues. Sexual abuse. War. Social comparison. Broken homes. Processed foods. Air pollution. Cheat devices. Digital addiction. Malfunctioning brain circuits. Whether that be greed, violence, racism, manipulation, objectification and/or pride, the root behind most, if not all of these things, is sin. So it is right to think that these things aren’t as they should be, because it was never meant to be this way. And so when Jesus says, “repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”, he is inviting us into the great reversal, as God begins the renewal of all things. He is inviting you to make his perfect way of life the central thesis of what you realign your mind to. He is offering us a chance to change our minds (to repent) and follow his way, which is one of sacrificial love, forgiveness, authentic connection, liberation, redemptive justice, hope and rest. This does not mean that tethering yourself to this foundation will automatically remove the realities of mental health issues, because we still live in a fractured world. But it does give you the starting place out of which everything else will flow. The time period we are living in has been dubbed the now and not yet, which simply means that present healing is available to us, but the full realization of all things being healed has yet to come.

HEALING

There’s this fascinating concept that we read about in scripture (Zech. 13:9, 1 Pet 1:7, Isa 48:10), in which we hear about how God lets us go through “the fire”. ⁠This analogy actually comes directly from the refining process in which a silversmith refines silver. To get the best results, the silversmith has to hold a piece of silver directly over the middle of a fire, where the flames are the hottest.⁠But a refiner’s fire has a specific purpose — to refine, not burn down. And so the idea is that when God lets us go through the fire, he removes all the junk that didn’t need to be there SO THAT we would be made whole. If you’ve caught on yet, naturally this process isn’t fun, especially when you suffer from mental health issues. Unlearning toxic thought patterns is painful. Sitting down with a therapist and retraining your brain is uncomfortable. It can be terrifying to revisit that memory in that bedroom when you were a kid. It can be agonizing to face your deepest fears. Tears will be shed. Anxiety will flare up. At times it could feel like almost too much to bear. We might even start becoming convinced that we’re backtracking. But if we’re willing to endure through the messy process and embrace the slow-burn, we will discover something beautiful in the end. As we rest in the foundation that Jesus has set before us, satisfying the existential crisis in our soul, we can walk the holistic path towards healing. Through a combination of therapy, prayer, scripture, medication (and also embracing the crazy idea of spiritual warfare), we will start experiencing what the Apostle Paul called the renewal of the mind and what science has labeled neuroplasticity. Our brain quite literally will undergo a physical restructuring as it manufactures brand-new neural pathways that are shaped by the way of Jesus. This process is anything but simple, yet in the midst of it we can hold fast to the promise that we are not alone. The same God who is stitching back together the pieces of a broken world says that he “goes before us” (Deut 31:8). This one thing is guaranteed, that he will never leave us. And in the middle of the painful refining process, he also promises us purpose. Have you ever noticed how humans have this uncanny ability to move towards those that share their struggle? Cancer survivors gravitate towards those suffering with cancer. Parents who have lost a child form bonds with others who have lost a child. And thus the purpose we find in the middle of our mental health issues is the opportunity to speak into the lives of those who are suffering like us. To come alongside God in the stitching back together and play our part in the renewal of all things, one person at a time.

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