A qualitative inquiry into consumer beliefs about the causes of mental illness


A. E. Z. Baker, School of Nursing and Midwifery, University of South Australia, City East Campus, GPO Box 2471, Adelaide, SA 5001, Australia, E-mail: amy.baker@unisa.edu.au


Accessible summary

  • • People with a mental illness hold a range of beliefs about factors or situations which may cause mental illness.
  • • Several losses are suggested as possible causes of mental illness, particularly social losses such as the death of a loved one or loss of a nurturing relationship in childhood because of abuse.
  • • Mental health professionals should be aware of, and willing to engage in discussions about the diverse range of explanatory models for mental illness.


This paper examines consumer or service user beliefs about the causes of mental illness. It presents a qualitative, participatory action research study involving semi-structured in-depth interviews with 16 people who had been diagnosed with a mental illness and attended a community mental health centre in metropolitan South Australia. Inductive thematic analysis was undertaken, with a range of beliefs about the possible cause of mental illness identified. Findings are organized within two key areas: social or environmental factors and physical or biological factors. The social or environmental category included varied situations, clustered under the subcategories of: stress during childhood, events in adulthood and religious beliefs. Physical or biological factors included beliefs that mental illness was inherited, caused by brain malfunction or chemical imbalance. Of note, one-third of consumer participants who discussed possible causes of mental illness identified multiple potential causes. Implications for service delivery, specifically related to therapeutic trust and engagement, are also considered.