Mental health is the absence of mental illness. Contemporary theories suggest that mental illness is genetically predisposed and develops when significant stressors in the environment turn those genes on. As a psychologist, when I evaluate a person, I look at the bio-psycho-social formulation. That means that I search for the biological (genetics, nutrition), psychological and social conditions in a person’s life that could have contributed to the development of mental illness. I inquire about the history of mental illness in the biological family.
The psychological factors may include childhood stressors. I might just ask informal questions or ask the patient to take the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) test. The test was developed in the 1990s and measures a person’s risks from a difficult childhood, where abuse and neglect were present. Why do therapists ask about your childhood experiences? Because the messages we receive about ourselves and the world get imprinted on our developing brain. They become the lens through which we interpret all of our experiences. They often become unconscious and guide our actions without our conscious knowledge. If they are negative, they may cause depression and anxiety.
Obviously, childhood stressors are not the only ones that matter. We also inquire about the current stressors in a person’s life.
The social conditions are also an important contributor to a person’s mental health. Loneliness and lack of connection make us more vulnerable to illness and a strong sense of community and belonging serve as protective factors.
Our mental and physical health are actually connected, they are not separate. For example, inadequate nutrition (processed foods) or environmental toxins can cause physical or mental illness or both.
Conversely, negative thoughts and toxic beliefs can cause physical illness for that reason, it is important to me to look for that mind-body connection. Improving your mental health will also improve your physical health.