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Mental Health

Risk factors for mental illness

It wasn’t so long ago that any kind of mental illness was something only discussed behind closed doors. Even mood disorders such as anxiety and depression weren’t taken seriously as medical conditions.

Things have changed, and that’s good. We now know that mental health issues affect Canadians of all ages and backgrounds. In fact, over one million Canadians suffer from some kind of depressive illness. These aren’t rare conditions.

Still, they don’t affect everyone, and researchers are still investigating why. It turns out that certain factors can increase the chance that an individual will develop a mood disorder some time during his or her lifetime. Here are a few.

  • Gender: Women are more prone to depression than men – in fact, mood and anxiety disorders occur about one and a half times more often in women.
  • Genetics: Depression and chronic anxiety tend to run in families. There’s also been some research that suggests that if you have a certain defect in what’s called the “transporter” gene, your body is less able to carry a chemical messenger called serotonin, making you more susceptible to major depression.
  • Life events: Going through a number of stressful life events or traumas (such as serious illness, abuse, divorce or losing a job) can trigger an episode of depression in vulnerable individuals. Some research has also found that emotional or physical abuse during childhood raises your risk of developing severe depression later in life.
  • Personality styles: Traits like being self-critical or having low self-esteem can put people at greater risk of mood disorders.
  • Chronic illnesses: Illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease have been linked to depression.
  • Other diseases: Recent research has found links between depression and certain viruses, including the Epstein-Barr virus, which causes mononucleosis. There might also be a connection between depression and certain proteins that play a role in the immune system, or between depression and our body’s response to the hormone insulin.

Many of these factors work together to cause depression or anxiety in a person at risk. For example, even people carrying genes that predispose them to mood disorders may have to be exposed to certain environmental conditions to become severely depressed or anxious.

Risk factors for mental illness
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