Medically reviewed by Katelyn Hagerty, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 4/7/2022
Mental illness is a horrible house guest — it often overstays its welcome, it never respects boundaries and it makes our lives worse. In short: it’s not welcome.
The best way to protect your mental health is to be watchful and vigilant against the things that can harm it, or increase the risk of mental illness — mental health risk factors.
Understanding the risk factors for mental illness is one of the best ways to make sure that mental illness never gets both feet in the door.
Your mental health is sort of like your physical health. The default condition is that nothing is wrong, and everything is functioning normally.
With your physical health, that means organs, limbs, muscles and joints all function as they should, and tissues and cells remain healthy and don’t randomly die off in large numbers.
When it comes to your mental health, you can apply the same logic. Your connections, your view of yourself, your ambitions and your inner willpower and drive are all functioning normally, and your thoughts and emotions aren’t veering toward one extreme or another.
When things don’t work right physically, you have a physical illness. And when things don’t work right mentally, you have a mental illness.
In short, mental illness is defined as a medical condition affecting the mood, behavior and thoughts of an individual.
Mental illness can have a profound effect on your life, your work, your relationships and your happiness, and left untreated, it can damage and destroy all of the things on that list.
It may sound like mental illness is rare, but it’s actually quite common: one in five adults experience a mental illness each year, one in six people between the ages of six and 17 experience mental illness each year and one in 20 adults experience “serious” mental illness every year.
With the seriousness of mental illness in focus, you probably understand why risk factors are so important to consider.
Risk factors are basically the list of circumstances, experiences, habits and traits that can increase your risk for mental illness — in other words, they’re a factor in how at-risk you are for mental health conditions.
There are a few ways of looking at potential risk factors, but it helps to organize them into two groups: extrinsic and intrinsic.
Extrinsic factors are risk factors that impact your mental health from outside yourself.
These might include various environmental factors or experiential events. Examples include drug or alcohol use, a traumatic life event like assault or the loss of a loved one, a history of neglect, stress or intense anxiety from work or home and more things that fit into the same space.
Extrinsic mental health risk factors also include things like traumatic injuries, exposure to toxic chemicals in the womb and other birth defect events that may impair or permanently damage brain function.
Extrinsic factors may also include bigger-picture trends and shortcomings in your mental health infrastructure. A person’s socio-economic background, the frequency of family conflict in their household, their access to a support system (or lack thereof) and relative isolation from friends and family can all cause and exacerbate mental illness.
Money, poverty, homelessness, legal troubles and other instabilities and challenges to your security can also present an increased risk for mental health issues.
Intrinsic factors mostly have to do with your biochemical processes within your body and brain, and with your genetic makeup. These might be genetic — a family history of psychiatric disorders or behavioral disorders might have set you up for challenges from the start.
Biological factors like anomalies in your brain chemistry can be risk factors because they may impair the function of your neural networks, adversely affecting your neurotransmitters and causing mental health disorders.
In fact, there’s strong evidence that these intrinsic risk factors can chemically lead to negative thoughts and unhealthy habits like errors in your brain’s coding, so to speak.
Those unhealthy habits and thoughts can in turn cause you to experience things like loss of sleep and other health-based risks to your mental health, and without effective coping mechanisms, they can lead you to depression, anxiety and other mood disorders.
Caring for your mental health isn’t just about making yourself feel happiness or contentment. It’s also about learning to sit with uncomfortable feelings and negative emotions in healthy ways, while also learning how to manage your response.
If the risk factors above increase your chances of ending up with mental illness, then the opposite is true for protective factors. Learning to effectively cope with trauma, having a healthy community and support structure, taking care of your health and confronting any substance abuse problems is the path away from mental illness risks.
But these are only one element: prevention.
When things are already not great, it may be time to engage in therapeutic practices. Reaching out to a mental health professional when you’re having difficulty or struggling with a mental health crisis is the best way to get help.
Your provider may suggest you engage in therapy or try medication, or they may recommend a combination of the two, tailored to your unique needs and your situation.
Mental health care is an underappreciated and important part of how we keep ourselves operating at cruising altitude.
Avoiding things that increase your risk of mental disorders is a crucial way to prevent anxiety or depressive disorder later on, but if you’re already struggling with mental health consequences, the time to act is now.
If you're in need of more information, read on — start with ourmental health resources guide.
If you're ready to take action, talk to a primary care provider or other healthcare professional today, or consideronline therapy for what you're struggling with now.