Although the exact cause of most mental illnesses is not known, it is becoming clear through research that many of these conditions are caused by a combination of biological, psychological, and environmental factors. Biologically, some mental illnesses have been linked to abnormal functioning of nerve cell circuits or pathways that connect particular brain regions. Nerve cells within these brain circuits communicate through chemicals called neurotransmitters.
“Tweaking” these chemicals – through medicines, psychotherapy or other medical procedures – can help brain circuits to run more efficiently.
This aspect manifests from childhood. The parenting style and the communication strategy of the family unit are crucial factors that are capable of determining the mental status of the growing child.
Children come to this world carrying empty cognitive slates – tabula rasa. And family, as the first socialising agent, paints pictures and imprints codes of conduct that they will use to navigate this world.
It is amazing how some of the lessons my parents taught me when I was growing up still remain strong even in my adulthood. Some years ago, my teenage daughter told me not to tuck in my T-shirt, especially in the evenings when I am expected to be a little more relaxed.
I had to explain that my ‘style’ was from my mother’s insistence that I must always tuck in my shirt to look smart. It is as though she knew a time would come when boys would hardly want to pull up their pants to the waist.
Marriage is challenging but, more important, it is an avenue for other minds to grow and become responsible citizens. But when this relationship becomes dysfunctional, it has a potent negative impact on the children.
The emotional environment of a dysfunctional family is toxic for the children as communication take a defensive dimension. The mother can display her frustrations on the innocent child.
Commands that could have been simple become vague and amorphous, such that when the mother intends to say ‘come,’ she says ‘go away.’ This style is capable of setting up a form of cognitive dissonance that may be a foundation for future mental illness in some children.
Wrong values may be inculcated into the growing child as both parents strive to exonerate themselves of any marital dysfunction. In some situations, the marital relationship is skewed as the father may assume a dominant role, leaving the mother authoritatively impotent.
Reactions could come from the children, especially the female child, who may sympathise with her psychologically-battered mother; or the son may approach life with the notion of subduing women.
The prevailing socio-economic situation in the country has created some scenarios where women are the authority figures in the family. Some fathers may become alcoholics and eventually abscond from home, leaving a good number of women technically as single parents. The palpable absence of the authoritarian male figure in the home may produce children with lopsided mentality as they enter the chaotic adolescent years.
Some cultural practices require children to be raised by surrogate parents, even when the biological parents are alive. Examples exist where a first child is left with the grandparents as couples travel abroad, only to come back some 10 years later to a child who cannot relate with his siblings born overseas because of an inferiority complex. This child may later resort to drug abuse.
It is very common for mothers to abandon their children to nannies as they pursue their careers, invariably raising children with profound problems of attachment and bonding. Such children may have defective social connections to significant others because of perennial changes in the faces of the care givers.
Parenting is not essentially biological; it is a sophisticated social skill that can be administered to children without biological relationship. Single parents can intelligently adapt the parenting facilities of a father figure in the extended family system or other relationships.
The mental capital furnished by a strong and loving family relationship provides the building blocks for any secondary form of socialisation. The contest between the destructive influences of the peer group and the school teachers becomes an opportunity for wholesome development for children coming from a secure family background. This is one of the cheapest ways to reduce the incidence of mental illness in our communities.