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The Truth About Mental Illness and Its Causes, Part I

Author: Robert Brocato

This article is Part I of a three part series.


If you ask ten different people to define mental illness, you’ll likely get ten different answers. Try it. You may be surprised. It is not an easy question for most people. This document is going to give you some information about the truth of what mental illness is. Hopefully, you will be able to begin to answer this question with more clarity after reading this.

In addition to various definitions of mental illness, many people over time have held a wide variety of thoughts about the causes of it. Throughout history the competing thoughts about the causes of mental illness include things spiritual, biophysical, and more psychological in nature. Each of these thoughts have taken center stage depending on the time period and society. Rarely have all three been taken into account along with how they fit together properly. Basically, there has been a lot of confusion. This confusion has resulted in much stigma for those suffering from mental illness. The mentally ill have been treated with different reactions from seeing them as touched by the gods in ancient Greek societies to chaining them up and putting them on display for a public spectacle in the Enlightenment time period in Europe.

The purpose of this document is to define mental illness and touch on its root causes. Knowledge is power and can help you in your journey toward recovery. People who have mental illness or know someone they love with mental illness will find this information helpful. That is the goal.

The form this document takes is to present brief and to the point foundational principles. In some cases, a little information and explanation is given. Quite literally, several books could be written on each individual point. My concern is to give you the 20,000-foot fly-over. I want to let you see the shape and outline of the forest, and I’m not going to be overly concerned with individual trees. The foundational principles together make a framework for you to build an understanding.

Mental Illness Defined and Basic Brain Chemistry Discussed

Understanding the basics of brain chemistry will help you see that the issues you are facing are not hocus pocus or magic. The reality is that the human brain is the most complex biological organ known to science.

If something is askew in this organ, you could have one or many different types of disorders. One category of conditions you can suffer from are those classified as mental illness. Another example of a category of disorders you could have would be categorized as neurological.

In this section, I will get into the definition of what mental illness is and try to give you a little information about basic brain chemistry. Biochemical imbalance is the enemy. Correcting balance is what Focus on the Mind is all about.

  • Mental illness afflicts all of us individually in some manner, like all other forms of illness, because no one has a perfect brain. Many times, mood problems are so minor that they would not be categorized as medical conditions. But where to draw the line between medical diagnosed condition and just feeling bad is very arbitrary. A perfect brain is not attainable this side of heaven. No form of perfect health is possible this side of eternity. No one has perfectly appropriate moods all the time.
  • Mental illness is defined as brain neurotransmitter imbalance. Any neurotransmitter may exist in an imperfect level. A neurotransmitter may be present as too much or too little of a given brain chemical.
  • A neurotransmitter is a chemical signal between brain cells and is made up primarily of amino acids (I.e., the basic building blocks of protein). Different amino acids are the building blocks of different neurotransmitters. For example, the amino acid tyrosine is the raw material the body uses to make the neurotransmitter dopamine. Neurons are brain cells. Neurotransmitters travel from neuron to neuron throughout the brain. Estimates are that there are over 100 billion neurons in the brain, and each neuron connects to thousands of other neurons.
  • Cofactors help the body build neurotransmitters. Cofactors such as vitamin B6, zinc, copper, etc.
    help the body turn amino acids (the primary raw material) into neurotransmitters.
  • Correcting and optimizing cofactors and amino acids (the raw materials) can have a profound positive impact on mental health. Imbalances and deficiencies in biochemical cofactors such as vitamin B6, zinc, copper, etc. can disrupt the body’s ability to convert amino acids into neurotransmitters. This can lead to some types of imbalances. Genetics can also affect the levels of these cofactors needed by an individual person. The science of correcting and optimizing cofactors and nutrients
    is called orthomolecular medicine.
  • Mental illness may further be defined as to those traditionally called “mood disorders.” There are basically three “classifications” of mood disorders: mania, depression, and anxiety. Everyone may experience each of these moods in a more controlled manner every day. In other words, it is quite natural to cycle in and out of low levels of these moods all the time. The problems really arise when these moods become too excessive.
    • Mania is the symptom of racing thoughts and may lead to angry outbursts and other irrational behavior when it exists in a somewhat excessive state. Too much racing can cause one to lose touch with reality and become schizoaffective or schizophrenic and leave the person with a full-blown psychosis. (Psychosis is basically when a person is out of touch with reality).
    • Depression is the symptom where the brain is slow or down in state. Life’s everyday events seem sad or too big even when they are not. Generally speaking, depression is the opposite of mania. Rarely, too much depression can cause psychosis as well because the person with severe depression may lose touch with reality. 
    • Anxiety is often confused with mania. Anxiety results from excessive chemicals that cause worry or concern or lack of neurotransmitters that promote calmness. This is not the same as racing thoughts when one just thinks too fast and can’t stop. Often, the racing thoughts of a manic mind will jump from one issue to another issue and keep jumping. Worry and concern are not necessarily involved. On the other hand, anxiety and excessive worry may be present even when the brain is not racing or thinking really quickly. If the brain is in a depressed state, and anxiety is present, usually, it is more straightforward to understand and discern. The person will be sad and have excessive worry. However, problems in discerning anxiety from mania may become difficult when they are both present at one time. When super quick thoughts (too much thinking energy) are combined with excessive worry, it can sometimes be difficult to understand both directions of mood and symptoms at once.
  • Excessive dopamine may cause mania. This is the most common type of mania. The body uses dopamine to make noradrenalin which is turned into adrenalin. Excessive noradrenalin and adrenalin that won’t decrease on their own tends to lead to an unhealthy state of mind and can lead to psychosis.
  • Excessive serotonin may cause mania. Though less common than excessive dopamine as a cause for mania, excessive serotonin may sometimes cause mania as well. Mania caused by excessive SSRIs (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors – a classification of pharmaceutical drugs that increase serotonin in the brain) use is called serotonin syndrome.
  • Insufficient amounts of GABA may cause anxiety. GABA is produced by the body primarily in converting Glutamine into GABA. The cofactor vitamin B6 plays a huge role in the conversion process. Lack of GABA is likely to cause an individual to feel anxiety. GABA also plays a role in tuning down excess serotonin and dopamine. Note: Taurine also plays a role in alleviating anxiety and tuning down mania.
  • Insufficient serotonin may cause depression. This is the most common form of depression or low mood.
  • Insufficient dopamine may cause depression. Giving a person with low dopamine an SSRI is not helpful since SSRIs raise serotonin in the brain, not dopamine. Low levels of dopamine can lead to lack of drive and motivation. Note: low dopamine is also present in Parkinson’s Disease.
  • Other forms of brain disorders may also result from brain neurotransmitters being out of balance. For example, Autism, Epilepsy, Parkinson’s, ADHD, ADD, PTSD, etc. These are beyond our present discussion for the time being.
  • Symptom definitions of mental illness are not as helpful as many have been led to believe. In other words, saying a person has depression, schizophrenia, or bipolar disorder are just descriptions of outward symptoms and are not always very helpful.
    • Coping mechanisms sometimes hide imbalances. Another reason symptom description is not always helpful is that brain chemicals may be out of balance, but the person with them may still be in control of outward behavior. Some people have brain issues but have learned to cope in some way. Outward signs don’t tell the whole story.
    • Root cause analysis is more helpful. Root cause discovery is generally much more helpful toward bringing about a recovery.
      Not all outward symptoms are discernably traced to a single root cause that is common to everyone. One symptom of depression could have 5 different root causes for any 5 given people. Knowing the actual root cause leads to more accurate treatment, less guesswork, and sometimes is the only way a condition may be treated at all. The science of getting to root causes of illness is called functional medicine.
    • Sometimes, mild to mid-level problems are not noticed. Brain chemical imbalance is not always manifest with outward discernable symptoms. For example, mild depression may seem normal to an individual even though the individual has a chemical imbalance. They have depression and do not know it. They do not know that they can feel better.

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This article is Part I of a three part series.