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Mental illness: social factors versus genetics

Second International Psychology Conference in Dubai highlights how traumatic circumstances are increasingly overshadowing natural risks in patients

Gulf News

Dubai: Social factors in our environment have a higher link to mental illness than genetics, said a speaker at the Second International Psychology Conference in Dubai yesterday.

Richard Bentall, Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Liverpool in the UK, presented his publication during the conference held at Dubai’s Heriot Watt University, which discussed the significant link between social risk factors and mental illness.

The nature versus circumstances debate has long existed within the academic community.

“Genes and the environment interact with every stage of development in the human life,” said Bentall to an audience including students and psychologists from around the world besides conference delegates.

While genetics is believed to be the number one determinant of mental illness, Bentall, pointed to six social risk factors like poverty, social inequality, and exposure to urban environments as major contributors to psychosis.

He also listed factors such as belonging to an ethnic minority, inadequate communication in parents and mistreatment as well as other types of trauma in childhood as strong contributors to mental illnesses such as delusions, hallucinations, and different psychotic disorders. The research presented showed that while these factors are strongest when exposure occurs in childhood, the effect on adults can also be toxic.

Bentall explained that despite the links found in recent studies, different people deal with the same factors and circumstances in different ways, and therefore the impact varies in different people.

Referring to the spread of conflict, and issues such as wars, sexual violence, bullying, and inequality to list a few — he concluded that the world is getting more psychologically unhealthy, and called upon politicians around the world to help change that reality. “We have to figure out how to persuade politicians everywhere to make the change that can help reduce mental illness,” said Bentall.

Bentall was among hundreds of speakers and visitors who attended the two-day conference, which continues to be a top event for psychologists to update their expertise. The event’s second edition included psychologists who are working in the fields of clinical, organisational and educational psychology, and covered a variety of psychological topics such as mental health, suicide, language development in children, and behavioural models for talent management.

Another speaker, Elena-Maria Andrioti, who is currently a PhD Candidate in Psychology and a Counselor at the Carbone Clinic in Dubai, presented her study that links the increase in substance abuse in Lebanon with social factors such as personality differences and religious beliefs.

Her findings showed that factors such as how religious a person is, along with individuals’ living arrangements and personality types impacted how much alcohol they consume and how often they use or abuse substances such as cannabis. Andrioti pointed out that plans to carry out the same study in the UAE is under consideration.