Mental Health 101

Risk factors and causes of mental health problems


There is no single cause for most mental health problems. In fact, the causes are varied and complex. They result from interactions between biology, genetics, family and social environments and economic factors (MHCC, 2009). There are relationships between a person’s mental health, past traumas, biology/physical health and social environment (i.e., the social determinants of health, which will be explained later in the tutorial).

Click each cause below to learn more.

Traumatic experiences can be any negative experience that deeply affects a person. They are unsettling and impact a person’s ability to adapt to the normal stresses of life. Traumatic experiences could include being in a car accident, witnessing terrible events, being abused or living through a natural disaster or a war. Trauma, especially in childhood, causes health disparities. It is a root cause of adult disease and high-risk behaviours. Trauma is more likely to affect the most vulnerable people and populations (Kimberg, 2016).

It is important to recognize the possibility that anyone could have past trauma (Kimberg, 2016). In fact, for clients in a clinical practice or service, the rates of trauma can be as high as 80 to 90 per cent (Saunders & Adams, 2014).

If someone is experiencing mental health problems, it is important to examine their physical health as well. The brain and the body are connected. There are many physical conditions that can affect a person’s mental health. For instance, depression is both a cause and an effect of physical illness. People with depression are two times more likely to have a stroke and 1.5 times more likely to develop cancer. On the other hand, 17 to 27 per cent of people with heart disease and 22 to 29 per cent of people with cancer develop depression (MDSC, 2013).

The social determinants of health are the conditions in which people are born, develop, live and age. These are the main factors that shape people’s physical and mental health. In fact, each of these social determinants of health has stronger effects on people’s health than those related to diet, physical activity and tobacco and excessive alcohol use (Raphael, 2009). A model of the social determinants of health, developed at a York University Conference held in Toronto in 2002, helps explain health inequities,1 or differences, among Canadians (Mikkonen & Raphael, 2010).

difference between equality and equity

The 14 social determinants of health in this model are (Raphael, 2009):

  1. income and income distribution
  2. education
  3. unemployment and job security
  4. employment and working conditions
  5. early childhood development
  6. food insecurity
  7. housing
  8. social exclusion
  9. social safety network
  10. health services
  11. Aboriginal status
  12. gender
  13. race
  14. disability.

Because the causes and effects of mental health problems are not always clear, it's helpful to examine many aspects of a person to try to understand them and what they are going through. For instance, some people may lose their housing because of a mental health problem. Others lose their housing for economic reasons, but homelessness (e.g., lack of a safe place to sleep, lack of safety, inadequate food) causes stress and confusion. As a result, their mental health suffers.


1. Inequities

Equality refers to the division of resources into equal parts so that everyone gets the same. In contrast, equity involves people getting the resources they need, regardless of their location, age, gender or socio-economic status.

When every person has the opportunity to reach good health by getting the resources they need, it is called health equity. Health equity is about reducing unjust and avoidable differences in health among population groups (Saskatoon Health Region, 2014).