Contributing factors to Mental Illness

Factors that lead to mental illness are biological factors, environmental factors and circumstantial factors. No single one of these is the be all and end all of mental illness and generally people have two or even three of these present.


Biological factors are looking at genetics, which includes both DNA and epigenetics. DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) is the chain of G, T, A, and C rungs that are the blueprint for making a human. Your DNA defines how to make you, while my DNA defines how to make me. Not each rung is an on switch, nor an off switch – it is far more complicated than that. The rungs bunch together and are called genes. They define how certain groups of things work, and some of these things seems quite unconnected. One of these genes in canines, for example, connect the aggressive response to the rigidity of the ear and a few other factors. When you breed aggression out of foxes, you get domestic dog looking foxes. Epigenetics is a faster environmental response system that is built into your body for how to interpret different parts of the DNA. Eating bitter plants (such as broccoli and brussel sprouts) turns more of your anti-cancer epigenes on. This isn’t changing our DNA, it is changing how our body interprets the DNA. As we get older we don’t mind bitter plants as much, as that is when we need the cancer fighting foods, while when we are younger and can be more easily poisoned by eating the wrong bitter plants, we don’t like bitter much at all. Some epigenetic switches have been found to last as little as 6 months.


What we consume and what we experience affects us. It can also affect our children. The Dutch Winter Hunger is a fascinating discovery of how epigenetics not only switch the genes on and off for one generation, but last several generations down the line. When looking at biological sources of mental illness we look at your genogram, that is your children, your siblings, your parents, your parents siblings and your grandparents. Do any of them have odd behaviours or diagnoses? If there is a few, then the odds are that your experience is being influenced by hereditary genetics. This can lead to a nature vs nurture debate, which I’ll cover a bit later when I talk about environment. This is the nature part.


Some drug use can change some of these switches. We all have some genetic switches that when flipped will promote ill health. Paracelsus points out that all drugs are poisons, what matters is the dose. That is, if the does is right, the drug is useful, if the does is wrong, it creates harm. Illicit drugs are hard to control the dose and often we take far more of them than we should or need, thus we run the risk of taking doses high enough that we promote mental illness. Getting drunk on alcohol will make most people act oddly while the alcohol is in their system, but once they sober up the expectation is that the temporary insanity will go away. Drink too much for too long and your behaviour may last longer than the alcohol in your system. Illicit drugs are more likely to create persistent effects because you’ve flipped a genetic switch (or at least, that is the current thinking on how this works). Sometimes we are poisoned by toxins in our environment and sometimes by what we choose to consume. Sometimes we pass on these altered epigenetics to our children.


The Dutch Winter Hunger, mentioned above, was directly involved with a generation of children born during an induced famine. These children were born underweight and never grew to the full height of the rest of their family. This is not too unexpected. They also had a higher incidence of illness and disease when compared to their brothers and sisters born outside of the famine. What was unexpected was that the children born to these now adult’s, who were born in relative prosperity, were also seemed to have an increase in disease (the previously thought decline in weight appears to just be a statistical anomaly that was cancelled out later), as were their children. We are waiting to find out what the next generation does. The effects of drugs and toxins that lead to poor mental health on the next generation is still being explored… watch this space. But slowly, because it takes a lot of time to breed humans. It will be interesting to see what more examination of this specific famine have. Lab tests done with animals and plants have also corroborated inter-generational epigenetic inheritance.


Environmental factors are more about society, culture, subculture and parenting. This is the nurture side of the “debate”. The debate is a bit silly. It is trying to create a false dichotomy. Is who I am a result of my nature or my nurture? The answer is both. Sometimes more one than the other, but both nonetheless.


Society is the land you are in, culture is the assumptions of your family (often based on heritage), subculture is the values of your friends and peers, and parenting is the parental environment aside from all of these. Each of these creates a set of values and problem solving strategies and assumptions within us. When they work well with our personal view of the world and interaction with events, life is generally pleasant and easy. When there is conflict between our society, culture, subculture and/or parental environment, then often we find conflict within ourselves. Sometimes one or more of these environments can be harmful to us, in which case we again find conflict within ourselves. This conflict can become behavioural or emotional (feeling) regulation issues, commonly regarded as mental illness.


Coinsider being raised in a culture that defines blue eyed people as probably possessed by demons while brown eyed people are naturally resistant to such possession. A child will not be able to inherently know that this is cultural belief is considered strange by wider society. Children often assume the beliefs of their parents and local community are true. When that grown child is arrested by blue eyed police officers for doing something that the family believes is okay, such as burning down heretical places of worship, the assumption is going to be that the blue eyed police officers are possessed by demons. If the person ever works out that the values and life assumptions given to them by their parents and community are in error, that person is going to have a tough time adjusting to society. Society is going to seem shallow and full of errors. And it is. Mostly that majority of people who grow up in mainstream society have excellent ways to excuse all of the little errors, mistakes and outrages that surround us. People who come into this society see these errors for what they are – foolish and wrong.


When our environment harms us in subtle or overt ways, we learn ways to minimise the harm and make it seem alright. We humans survive. When we find ourselves no longer in a harmful situation, we don’t adapt well to peace and safety. Many mood disorders stem from this environmental harm. Mood disorders such as anxiety, depression, post traumatic stress disorder, borderline personality disorder and so on frequently stem from surviving hostile situations and not adjusting to non-hostility.


Sometimes the environmental factor is quite short lived. At this point we steer a bit away from thinking of it as nurture and define it more as circumstantial. That is, the circumstances in which you have found yourself is very stressful. A natural consequence of high and/or ongoing stress is changed behaviour.


Each of us has a certain amount of buffer space where we can be faced with adversity and adapt and overcome it without significant effect on ourselves. Buffer space is the concept behind stress tolerance and resilience. Stress tolerance is how much stress (unbalanced pressure) we can endure before it causes us problems. Resilience is how quickly does that stress tolerance come back. Each person has a different amount of both of these – some have little, some have lots. At some point, every person’s buffer can be overwhelmed. I posted a few weeks ago about torture. The point of torture is to overwhelm a person’s buffer space. Go read that if you want to know more.


Humans break, and upon breaking they change. When this change hinders us, it promotes mental ill health.


Often we want to personalise disaster – “why is this happening to me?”, “everything comes in threes”, “it’s like the universe is out to get me”. In the vast majority of times the disasters are not personal, they just happen randomly. Human perception of random is poor. We tend to think of random as an even distribution of events rather than recognising that events clump. Consider crossing the road away from traffic lights. The drivers are not in communication with each other and they don’t care about you. They are just driving. Yet they tend to clump up together at some times and spread out at other times. This is great for us at the side of the road, we just wait for the spread out bits to cross the road, rather than cross when the cars clump together. Unless the cars clump so much that they stop, that is. Events do that too. We think the spread out bits of bad luck (that is events that we don’t like) are lucky for us while the clumped up bits feel personal, because then we have some measure of control over it… right?


When enough local events go wrong for us we use up our buffer to deal with the first few events and then fail to have the resources to manage the next few events. This is when we humans tend to fall down and fail a bit. This risks mental illness, that is behavioural change and/or perception of the world change, of either a short term or long term nature.


Each of these causes can create different behaviours and management methods of the world. When we continue to interface with the world in a mostly successful way, we call them behavioural traits and no one really cares. When we move to the next level of management, where it is going okay, but wider society thinks it is odd, we frequently call the behaviour eccentric, different, annoying and/or special. When we fail to manage okay and our life becomes disordered or intolerable for various reasons, we call that mental illness.
For some, only one of these factors contributed to their mental illness. For others a combination of factors contributed. The mental illness is not defined by the contributing factor(s), it is defined by the effect it has on you now.

Breaking down mental illness

Mental illness comes in three major categories: cognitive disorder, mood disorder and/or positive/negative symptoms. While these aren’t the technical boundaries, this is the way that I consider mental illness to help break down the many subtleties into manageable portions. Mental illness isn’t just character trait, or a bit of an oddity. It is where the symptom, for various reasons, interferes with the smooth running of your life.


Cognitive disorder is about how we understand, what we think is real about the world and what we conclude from the evidence that we think is real. A component of this is perception, which comes in two flavours. Is the thing present and what is the threshold of meaning for the thing. If the unicorn is present, then it is something that I need to assess as far as risk and benefit. If it seems present but isn’t, then my assessment is automatically going to be in error. The assessment of risk vs benefit adjusts my behaviour towards the unicorn. If it is a risk to my health, then I need to be careful of it, while if it is there to charm those pesky fairies away, then I don’t need to be worried about the risk of the unicorn, I need to be worried about the risk of the fairies and the benefit the unicorn is going to have because of that risk. If we swap the unicorn, in this thought experiment, to a car, a risk of the car is that it will run me over. A benefit of the car is it can take me places very quickly. If I underestimate the risk of the car, I am in danger of being run over by it. If I overestimate the risk of the car, it may hinder the benefit the car can give me.


Another common cognitive error is faulty pattern recognition such as false beliefs and unclear/confused thinking. We humans are pattern recognition machines. This ability allows us to predict what comes next, such as when the gap in traffic will happen before we cross the road. We try to identify patterns and create heuristics to predict the next occurrences and the best way to deal with them. This gap is too small, this one is taking too long, etc. Sometimes we create patterns where there aren’t patterns. Every time I score beyond 5,000 in this game, a gap in the traffic appears. It may coincidentally happen a few times, but if my crossing the road relies on me scoring over 5,000, then my thought is in error and it hinders my life. Here I have equated to disparate things as if one things causes another, when really it doesn’t. Humans make these mistakes all of the time and only slowly let them go. The difference between a human trait (making this mistake) and a mental disorder is the magnitude of both the gap in connecting the disparate items and the consequence of doing so. As with most human traits, they don’t become a disorder until it creates significant disorder in your life.


Sometimes we create links that are very concrete but wrong, as described above. Sometimes we create links that are very short lived but wrong, such as this pen is a demon that is sucking my soul and spilling its life ink onto the paper. The paper is made from the tongue of a troll which was killed by Jesus when he was walking across the water to make the red sea into blood. When he did this, his finger fell off and was transmuted into a pen, which I now hold. This chain of story is trying to make all the elements that do exist fit into the ever shifting fantasy that is running through my thoughts. It is like trying to reconcile the real world on a dream understanding. This fails the real world test, thus making it very hard to actually make plans for how to better my or other’s lives.


Mood disorders are where the feelings we have are either too low, too high, and/or too rapid to be useful to our ability to work out an appropriate action to the event we are experiencing. First of all, let us separate the feeling from the emotion. We feel things internally, such as anger, fear, sadness, disgust, joy, and surprise. Feelings inform us of the environment and prime us to a default action based on the feeling. We emote (display) emotions, such as anger, fear, sadness, disgust, joy and surprise. Emotions communicate our feelings assessment to others. Be aware that people frequently mix the two up.


Consider something you are seeing. What you are seeing is light photons passing through your eye and hitting your retina. Your retina does some basic processing and passes the signal electrochemically into your brain. It goes via two channels. The fastests is to your danger pattern recognition centre, the amygdala and hypothalamus, located at the top of your spine inside your skull, just above the nape of your neck. It tries to quickly identify potential harm to you. If detected it gives you a suitable feeling and default action to manage this danger. If not detected, then you either don’t feel much, or if the assessment is of general benefit, you feel joy and again have a default action to deal with this. A few fractions of a second later the second channel kicks in.


This second channel is in your occipital region. Place your horizontal hand flat on your skull above the nape of your neck so that your hand is touching that bit that your spine touches your skull. Now place your other hand above that, higher on the back of your skull. That second hand is your occipital region. This is the light processing part of your brain. It is trying to work out what you are seeing and creating a three dimensional (3D) map of the world. It identifies that the thing you are seeing at the moment is a computer screen and what it’s basic use is. This report goes to the thinking part of your brain (ok, the whole brain is thinking, but this is simplified, right?) which is around your forehead. That part of your brain works out what to do based on the feeling and the report from your sensory translation – in this case of light the occipital region, but each sensory input has its own processing centre. So long as it isn’t an emergency you get to chose what to do.


When it is an emergency, the feeling is dialled right up by your danger sense and you automatically do the recommended action, like dodge or run. If it isn’t an emergency then you get a chance to think about your actions in light of the feeling driven recommended reaction. In a mood disorder this feeling is too low, so no warning comes and there is no motivation for you to do anything, no sense of urgency. If the feeling is too high, it is hard to think clearly and you find yourself reacting to everything instead of rationally acting. When the feelings cycle too fast, you can’t settle down on anything concrete for long enough to make a good choice.


We touched on positive symptoms a little earlier when talking about unicorns. If you experience something that most humans don’t, then it is considered a positive symptom. Most humans don’t see the unicorn, but you do. Testing the existence of the unicorn will show that it isn’t actually there, however most people experiencing positive symptoms are incredibly reluctant to test their belief. Other examples of positive symptoms include feeling insects crossing your body or crawling inside your body when they aren’t there, or perceiving people’s faces as whirlpools of smeared colour. Thought positive symptoms can include paranoia (unknown things are out to get you), conspiracy thinking (there is an evil plot by reptiles to control the ape people) and so on. Generally these positive symptoms are referred to as hallucinations and frequently respond very well to medication.


Negative symptoms are things that are missing when compared to the average human. The inability to feel joy, the absence of wanting to speak and no desire to form relationships with people are common examples. Not seeing peoples heads would be a positive symptom rather than a negative one (as it adds to perception rather than being an absence of perception). Unfortunately medication doesn’t help this one as much, so the solution is more complex than “here, take this pill”.


Each of these three branches can lead to mental ill health if they feed a behaviour that interferes with your life in a significant way. That is what changes the trait or experience into a disorder – that you find your life in dis-order. Many people feel the presence of god, which some would argue to be a positive symptom, yet lead perfectly average lives. The presence of this feeling does not mean that they have mentally ill health. Having strong feelings can mean that I am passionate without meaning that I am ill. Believing that the world is flat doesn’t stop me from going on a plane to attend a global conference of flat earthers – it might define me as odd, but not ill.
So, in a nutshell, three different ways that our thought process can hinder our lives. However the processes aren’t the only defining factor for mental illness, the consequence to us for that process is.

Torture – An Exposé

Torture is used by humans on humans to achieve two main outcomes. Dominance and manipulation. These are frequently related to each other.
Dominance is about the perpetrator demonstrating that they are in charge, that the perpetrator has choice and that the victim is not in charge and does not have choice. The perpetrator needs to do this because they do not feel that the victim is powerless or lesser and therefore must prove it on them by the application of various torture techniques. This torture repositions the power dynamic between the two to demonstrate the perpetrators power over the victim.
Manipulation is where the perpetrator wants the victim to change. That is, the perpetrator wants the victim to do something different to what they were going to do, behave in a way that is different to how they were going to behave and think in a different way to how they were going to think.
Both of these tell us a great deal about the perpetrator. A perpetrator doesn’t need to dominate a person that they already overpower or manipulate a person into doing what they were already going to do. All it proves is that the perpetrator feels inadequate or out of control, whether they are or not is irrelevant.
There are some fairly common techniques used in torture. The fundamental underlying aspect of torture is to change the core value of the victim from strength to compliance. If you are a victim, always remember you had to be seen as strong by the perpetrator for them to want to torture you. Mainly because they feel weak.
Physical punishment has two key elements, using pain to illicit fear as motivators. The first element is to weaken the will. This pain and fear fills part of our attention making it harder to think clearly. Consider when you have stubbed your toe, hit your thumb with a hammer, or slammed your hand in the door. I am pretty sure that most of your attention was on the pain and choice of swear words rather than considering the implications of astrophysics or any of your fields of interest. Your attention is on the pain, or fear of pain. It is not on thinking logically.
The second key element is fear avoidance. Ivan Pavlov is considered the first published scientists to discuss classical conditioning. His thought experiment regarding dogs, food and bells created an association in the dog’s reflexes between the ringing of the bell and the expectation of food via reward. Punishment is another form of conditioning. We don’t want to get hurt, so we do the thing (or don’t do the thing), in order to avoid the predicted pain. The torturer will ensure that you know what it is you are avoiding. The torturer will also use rewards as relief from the pain and fear to increase certain behaviours.
The perpetrator can inflict pain on the victim at will, thus demonstrating their physical dominance. The more sadistic perpetrator will want to leave marks to prove their power and ongoing dominance in a more permanent way. However it is rarely physical dominance that the perpetrator is after, they are just using it as a tool for what they really want. Psychological dominance.
Psychological manipulation uses similar techniques to the above. Overloading the mind and conditioning reflexes. This can be done via a host of techniques such as sleep deprivation, food deprivation, deprivation of liberty, creating an environment of fear, bombarding the victim with information, social isolation, financial deprivation and manipulating their emotions.
There is another aspect that is really important to all of these techniques. Convincing the victim that what they thought they were doing, thinking or feeling was wrong. This can be done via gas lighting (undermining core beliefs), emotional manipulation, invalidating the person’s integrity, changing goal posts (you can never be right) and making it not worth arguing. There are many more techniques than these, of course. The common underlying principle is to make the victim doubt the fact or value they knew and trusted, and replace it with the fact or value the perpetrator wants the victim to take on board.
Overloading the victims mind means that the victim can’t evaluate the information before storing it. Think of it like putting groceries away. When you realise you are about to put some rotten food in the cupboard, you stop, put it aside and throw it out. If I give you several tons of food to store in big boxes with a tight time limit, you won’t check all the food, you’ll just put it in the cupboard. By overloading the thinking mind, the victim can’t analyse and judge the information coming in and will just store the rotten idea without critical analysis.
Isolating the victim from safety, other trusted people and time is all about giving the person no good reference point to compare the new information to. If you are in a boat on the ocean on a cloudy night, you don’t know which way you are going. If you have a compass, you might have a clue, but if the perpetrator discredits the compass then you are lost again. The perpetrator needs to make the victim distrust all their means of finding themselves. This means discrediting friends, authorities and repositories of knowledge. By undermining the idea of right and wrong, the victim finds it hard to judge the idea for whether it is good or rotten.
When we feel stressed we pull back from life a little to help manage the important situations better. This is prioritising and on a short term basis makes sense. We deal with what we can and shrug off what we can’t. When the problem isn’t solved, we pull back more, and then more and so on as the problem persists. We isolate ourselves from friends because we just can’t deal with that distraction, from going out because it seems too hard and frequently find ourselves under resourced in many ways. We begin to doubt ourselves and avoid those who can help us. We frequently find our sleep pattern and food pattern become broken, messing with our bodies sense of rhythm. Sometimes we subconsciously do this to push us into crisis, where we are willing to take on new solutions to problems that aren’t being solved using our usual methods. Sometimes these are great solutions, sometimes they are bad. Sometimes we don’t find a solution and just crash and burn.
In effect, we torture ourselves when we are stressed. Those who perpetrate torture on others have hijacked this normal self-change process in humans for their own purposes. Torturers come in three major categories. Professionals are rare, hobbyists are also rare (that is, they know what they are doing and have tried to get good at it, also quite rare) and then there is the unwitting torturer who is just automatically compensating for their low self-image by harming others (very common). This last category have evolved their techniques out of a need to survive their own mind.
Once we know the process of torture and the reasons why people do it, we can recognise it in the wild. This gives victims the ability to interfere with the process, either by defending themselves from the tools used against them, avoiding the perpetrator or getting help from counsellors, police etc. It also gives the unwitting perpetrator the ability to recognise what they are doing and look go through a similar method to undo their methods. I highly recommend that unwitting perpetrators to get some good counselling to help change their behaviours and, very importantly, address the underlying reason why they are doing this.