Mental health: ethnic minority carers’ experiences

Carers' views: mental health problems & causes

About one in four people in the UK have a mental health problem. People who are affected have difficulties in the way they think, act and feel. Psychiatrists distinguish between different kinds of mental health problems (such as depression, anxiety disorder, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder (manic depression), obsessive compulsive disorder, dementia). However, there is no agreement about exactly what causes mental illness and how people can recover.

How carers describe mental health problems
When the carers we spoke to described mental illness, many talked about how it can affect people's understanding, thinking and logic, and that people who have mental illnesses can sometimes have a 'pretty loose touch with reality'. People also talked about how mental illness can mean people are less aware of their needs and make it difficult for them to cope with everyday life. Some said mental health problems made people 'see dangers that are not there' or sometimes not recognise real risks. Many said that in order to help, carers and professionals need to understand where those with such problems 'are coming from'.

Most thought that mental health problems can affect anyone, 'you don't have to be poor or uneducated, it has no barriers, it can happen in any community, any class'.

Some believed there can be a fine line between mental health problems and 'normality' and that we all at some point in our lives can 'get a touch of mental illness' when we feel stressed, depressed or down and find it hard to cope.

Carers' views about causes of mental health problems
People had different views about whether mental illness is something you are born with or not. Many believed that if there is a genetic side to it, it still needs to be triggered by something happening in the environment such as drugs, stress or loss.

Some carers have never been told about the likely cause of their relative's illness and some had not even been told what the actual illness was. Several of the carers (especially those working in the mental health field themselves) disagreed with the diagnosis given by doctors.

Many carers, and especially those who cared for someone with schizophrenia, had been told that their relative's mental health problem was caused by smoking hash, marijuana or taking other illegal drugs. Some of these carers believed that if their relative 'stayed off the drugs' they would recover or at least be stable on their medication.

One carer had been told by doctors that her husband's depression was caused by a viral infection, which had also left him with fibromyalgia. Others too talked about how mental health problems followed 'a shock to the system', sometimes in conjunction with illnesses such as heart attacks and diabetes.

A number of the carers believed their relative's problems were caused by difficult childhood experiences. Some thought children could get problems when carers themselves 'went through a bad patch' in their marriage or were getting divorced. Others talked about how 'bottling up' or being unable to talk about negative experiences (sometimes because of others' attitudes) could cause mental health problems or make them worse. 

Rather than looking for one cause, most carers believed mental health problems were caused by a mix of things in people's social environments such as dysfunctional families, unhappy marriages, alcoholism, loneliness, isolation, rejection and the lack of support or encouragement in difficult times. People also talked about pressure from work or studies, from living in poverty or the effects of racism. Some said migration can be especially difficult to cope with.

Most carers believed the causes of mental health problems are complex and that it was difficult to know exactly what triggered it. 

Some carers had heard that traumatic births, the time of year people were born, 'schizophrenogenic mothers' or nutrition could cause mental health problems but were not sure if there was any truth in such beliefs.

Mental health and spirituality
Some carers talked about how someone's mental health has to be understood as part of people's whole lives, including their mind, body and soul; 'everything needs to be taken into consideration'. Some talked about how a broken spirit can lead to mental health problems.

Some carers explained mental health problems by religious beliefs. Some said their relative had become unwell after dramatic events which were 'written that way' by Allah. Others saw mental health problems as a result of 'spiritual attacks' by negative forces, while others said it was caused by things like drugs, but that the reason people got addicted to drugs could be explained spiritually. (also see 'Support from Spirituality and Religion')

Last reviewed June 2015.

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