Mental Illness is a Combination of Environmental, Social, and Socio-Cultural Factors, combined with Genetic Pre-Disposition

16th October 2023

Mental health is not purely biological or 100% genetic as some assert. In the age-old debate, mental health is a combination of nature, only one elements of which is genetics, and nurture.

Nature vs nurture is an ongoing debate in considering the personality development of a child and a great topic for a high school essay. In considering mental health disorders, it is a topic that see-saws back and forth depending on the point or viewpoint of the writer or the type of clinical study being conducted.


Genetics is only one factor among a multitude of factors influencing mental health.

While at one time, mental illness was attributed to the supernatural, a popular line of thinking has developed referred to as the medical model, whereby it is supposed that mental health disorders are purely biological, in nature, with genetics playing the key role in the development of mental health disorders.

The next step to this line of thinking, then, is that the average individual is relatively powerless to overcome a mental health disorder without the help of professionals who, in all likelihood, will prescribe medications to correct the “chemical imbalance” that is the result of faulty genetics.

The beauty of this viewpoint of mental health is its simplicity. It is relatively easy to fit the symptoms profile into the psychiatric DSMIV mold and to determine a label for the disorder. After determining a label, the psychiatrist prescribes the appropriate medication. After all of that necessary business is accomplished, then thought can be given to therapy, very often group therapy and/or one-on-one talk therapy. Case closed.

Psychiatric Genetics Studies Indicate Combination of Factors Involved with Mental Health Disorders - Not pure genetics

However, evidence indicates, that despite the convenience and simplicity of psychiatric treatment based on the medical model, mental health disorders is not the result of pure genetics, and that genetics, while involved in the development of mental health disorders, is just one of many factors involved in the development of mental health disorders.

In the case of ADHD, psychology professor Joel Nigg, Ph.D., of Michigan State University, presents compelling evidence that there are causes for ADHD, which might also include environmental factors, as well as lifestyle issues, such as media content. (What Causes ADHD?, 2006).

Dr. Daniel Weinberger, chief of the clinical brain disorder branch of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) since 1987 is a researcher in the basic neurological and genetic mechanism of neuropsychiatric disorders, and he studies, in particular, schizophrenia.

Multiple risk factors involved with mental health disorders

He states that scientists have known for the past 30 years that “while genes related to mental illness do not determine your fate, they do tell about your risk status.” In other words, Weinberger, whose focus is on schizophrenia, comes to the same conclusion as Nigg, whose focus is on ADHD, that genes do have a role in determine your pre-disposition towards a mental health disorder, but that genes only increase risk, they do not “cause” mental health disorders, as some professionals erroneously assert (without proof or evidence), when it is convenient to make that assertion.

An accumulation of risk factors increases likelihood of mental health disorders.

Weinberger concludes that the likelihood of developing schizophrenia, or any other mental illness, is increased when a genetic risk factor arises amid the accumulation of other risk factors, such as environmental factors and social and socio-cultural factors. Both environment and drug use can be factors, according to Weinberger (as can alcohol use and abuse - not in Weinberger’s comments).

Mental health disorders are not the result of a single gene.

No single defective gene or chromosome is responsible for any mental health disorder. A genetic pre-disposition combined with social and environmental factors, many of which are controllable, can lead to any number of mental health disorders.
It is not "all in the genes".

He states that mental health disorders are unlike single-gene conditions like cystic fibrosis or Huntington’s Disease. Inheriting one gene factor “does not give you schizophrenia,” but rather, it increases your susceptibility to acquiring schizophrenia when combined with other environmental and social risk factors.

No Single Recipe for Mental Health Disorders

Weinberger states that there may be multiple genes involved, but that it is not necessary to all of these genetic markers to be present for a person to develop schizophrenia. He likens developing mental health disorders to a cooking recipe, there is no one recipe for producing a type of food, and that in developing mental health disorders, there is an array of combinations and variations that may lead to the ultimate manifestation of a mental health disorder. The disorder itself can manifest itself in many different ways as well.

There is not single recipe for the development of mental health disorders, and there is not a single treatment broadly applicable for each individual.

It is logical to conclude, then, that treatment is not a cookie cutter label and medicate, almost academic function, but that there are a variety of ways that mental health disorders can be addressed depending on the context in which the disorder has developed.

References for Mental Illness and Psychiatric Genetics

1. Nigg, J., (2006). What Causes ADHD? New York: Guilford

2. McLean, B., (Winter 2011). Genes and Mental Illness: What's the Connection? NAMI Advocate p. 7