Where does mental illness come from? One of the most perplexing issues for Christians is the relationship between spiritual problems and mental illness. Is lack of faith, failure to pray, for example, the reason a person becomes depressed? Because a person fails to trust God, does he or she experience “voices” that create great distress? or out of control mood swings? In fact, we find the origin of mental illness, and physical illness as well, much closer to home.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) joined with Kaiser Permanente Department of Preventive Medicine in Dan Diego, CA. They investigated the effect of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE). Using the medical histories of 17,000 people, researchers examined ten categories in early life. They sorted for recurrent physical abuse (beatings), contact sexual abuse, and abuse of alcohol or drugs by a household member. Investigators also flagged a household member who was clinically depressed, mentally ill, or incarcerated. They counted a member of the household who was suicidal, or a mother treated violently. They later added physical and emotional neglect. To register for a number more than one, a child had to experience more than one type of abuse. More repetitions of the same type did not count.
Where Does Mental Illness Come From?
Researchers then compared the frequency of those types of experiences with measures of later wellbeing. They noted physical health risks, for example, disease, healthcare costs, and life expectancy. Fifty years after the trauma, the study matched the person’s ACE score (0 – 4+) with their current state of wellbeing.
This chart above shows how childhood experiences underlie chronic depression. The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) scores for women (red) and men (yellow) show at the bottom, 0 through >=4 (L to R). That’s the number of types of abuse a person experienced. The left scale shows the % of those people in our population with lifelong chronic depression. The skyrocketing prevalence of lifelong depression as the result of increasing types of early childhood trauma leaps out at us. While every person needs godly counsel, those with greater early trauma will need more specialized attention.
The authors stumbled on this relationship while conducting a weight loss program: “Unexpectedly, our Weight Program had a high drop-out rate, limited almost exclusively to patients successfully losing weight.” The researchers had expected the opposite! “Exploring the reasons underlying the high prevalence of patients inexplicably fleeing their own success in the Weight Program, ” they said, “ultimately led us to recognize that certain of the more intractable public health problems like obesity were also unconscious, or occasionally conscious, solutions to problems dating back to the earliest years, but hidden by time, by shame, by secrecy, and by social taboos against exploring certain areas of life experience.”
This chart pattern holds true for almost every mental and physical illness of which we are aware. Physical illnesses which fit this pattern: severe obesity, smoking and lung disease, risk for coronary heart disease and HIV. The same pattern holds for addictions: adult alcoholism, and drug addiction, including I-V drug use. But it also applies to mental disorders, such as hallucinations, attempted suicides, those with a history of lifetime depression, and use of antidepressant prescriptions. Life expectancy also declines with the rise in ACE scores.
What Can I do?
Now that we understand the source of many if not most of our disabilities, mental and physical, what can we do about them? Next week I’ll explore ways we can help ourselves and how pastors and other counselors can assist people who come to us for help.
[ From Felitti and Anda, “The Relationship of Adverse Childhood Experiences to Adult Medical disease, Psychiatric Disorders, and Sexual Behavior: Implications for Healthcare,” in The Impact of Early Life Trauma on Health and Disease: The hidden Epidemic. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010.]