The Causes of Poor Mental Health

The COVID-19 pandemic brought much-needed attention to the widespread problem of poor mental health and the lack of access to mental health care. Whatever the causes of poor mental health, the symptoms of it make it more difficult to build meaningful relationships, make healthy choices, and handle the stress of everyday life.

Mental illness and poor mental health are not the same things. A person can be struggling with aspects of their mental health but not have a diagnosable mental illness. Likewise, living with a mental illness does not exclude someone from enjoying healthy relationships or coping with life’s ups and downs successfully.

How Is Good Mental Health Defined?

Mental health refers to psychological, emotional, and social well-being. Everyone feels sad, anxious, or mildly depressed now and then. Experiences like the loss of a job, a divorce, or the death of a loved one can cause a temporary drop in the quality of your mental health.

Most people who are in generally good health and have a good support system recover from these types of negative experiences in a relatively short time. However, others may not. A number of factors influence the quality of a person’s mental health.


Resilience is the ability to bounce back and cope with life’s challenges as they come. Resilient people tend to have a positive view of themselves and life in general, and they seek support when they need it.

Life Satisfaction

One indicator of good mental health is a person’s ability to enjoy life despite its ups and downs. Maintaining good relationships, feelings of belonging, and a sense of personal value are major contributors to life satisfaction.


People with good mental health allow themselves to experience and express a range of emotions. They are better prepared to be flexible when unexpected events interrupt their plans — even major life plans.

Social Support

There is a strong link between loneliness and physical and mental health. People who are lonely are at greater risk for depression, cardiovascular disease, and memory problems. Social support plays a key role in maintaining good mental health.

What Are the Causes of Poor Mental Health?

Some people are more prone to mental health struggles than others. Exactly what causes poor mental health differs from person to person. Genetic and environmental factors play a major role and include:

  • Inherited traits that increase the risk of mental illness

  • Exposure to environmental stressors, toxins, or inflammatory conditions while in the womb

  • Brain chemistry and impaired plasticity

The effects of these factors can be long-lasting and lead to the development of a chronic mental illness, or they can make people more vulnerable to short-lived drops in overall mental wellness.

It is also possible to have more than one mental health concern at a time. For example, you may feel sad about the loss of a romantic relationship while also suffering from a chemical-based depressive disorder.

This is one reason why it’s so important to seek professional care if you are experiencing symptoms of poor mental health. Your ability to “bounce back” after a difficult period could be impaired by genetic or environmental factors you’re not aware of.

Risk Factors for Poor Mental Health

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, every year, one in five adults in the U.S. experiences a mental health problem. While mental health concerns can affect anyone, some people carry a higher risk of developing mental health challenges than others.

The World Health Organization lists a number of factors that can increase your likelihood of experiencing poor mental health. They include:

  • Discrimination related to ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, etc.

  • Exposure to trauma, such as witnessing violence or being abused

  • Family history of mental illness

  • Chronic medical illness

  • Poor self-esteem

  • Poor social skills

  • A lack of social equity, including poor access to vital healthcare services

  • Substance use

  • Isolation

  • History of neglect

  • A previous mental illness

  • Stressful life events, such as the loss of a loved one or financial problems

  • Brain damage caused by an accident or injury

Does poverty cause mental illness? Poverty is not a direct cause of mental illness, but it can be a contributing factor to poor mental health. Being unable to afford basics like healthy food and safe shelter puts a person’s overall health at risk.

The inability to access health care when needed or experiencing discrimination based on income also make people more vulnerable to poor mental health.

What Are the Symptoms of Poor Mental Health?

Understanding what causes poor mental health is only part of the picture. It is also important to recognize the signs of a mental health concern in yourself or a loved one. Exact symptoms vary according to each person’s unique experiences, but consider these common signs of poor mental health:

  • Fatigue or low energy

  • Changes in sleeping or eating patterns

  • Feeling worried or stressed all the time

  • Confused thinking

  • Feeling sad and hopeless

  • Inability to focus on tasks

  • Inability to cope with day-to-day problems

  • Changes in sex drive, including risky sexual behavior

  • Paranoia, delusions, hallucinations, or being detached from reality

  • Withdrawal from friends and loved ones

  • Excessive anger and uncharacteristic violent behavior

  • Loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed

  • Using drugs or alcohol to feel better

  • Extreme mood changes

  • Feeling guilty or ashamed

  • Trouble relating to people

  • Self-harming behaviors

  • Suicidal thinking

Signs of poor mental health may also appear as physical problems. People who are struggling with mental health may complain of back pain, stomach pain, headaches, or other aches and pains.

If you have suicidal thoughts, call a mental health specialist right away or call the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988. If someone you know is talking about suicide, take it seriously. Stay with them and call 911.

Can Bad Mental Health Cause Bad Physical Health?

The idea of a mind-body connection may still seem like new-age fluff to some, but physical and mental health are closely connected. Caring for your mental health has a direct impact on your physical well-being.

Depression has been linked to chronic illnesses, such as asthma, cancer, diabetes, arthritis, and cardiovascular disease. People with schizophrenia appear to have a higher risk of respiratory and heart diseases.

Living with poor mental health is emotionally and physically exhausting. It can make it difficult to do the things that promote good health, such as eating healthy food, getting exercise, spending time with friends, and staying updated with basic medical care.

These factors provide another way of answering the question, “Can bad mental health cause bad physical health?” Yes, poor sleep habits and feeling exhausted, lonely, or depressed leads to other unhealthy habits that put your physical health at risk.

Do You Have More Questions About What Causes Poor Mental Health?

If you’d like to know more about the question, “Does poverty cause mental illness?” or are still wondering, “What are the causes of poor mental health?” it may be time to speak with a mental health professional.

Don’t let the stigma about mental health and mental health care stop you from living a satisfying, balanced life. If you’re experiencing warning signs of poor mental health or are concerned about the mental health of a loved one, contact a therapist for support.

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