What is the Cause of Mental Illnesses?
The first question that should be asked is, what is mental illness? In Buddhism mental illness refers to the mind that cannot see reality, one that incorrectly perceives the person or object it senses. This always causes problems to arise. This would not be considered mental illness from a Western perspective; in Western society perception is too narrow. In the West, if a person is obviously emotionally disturbed, this is considered a mental problem, but not for a person with a fundamental inability to see reality, to understand his or her true nature. That is considered normal. And in a way it is as all unenlightened sentient beings share that problem.
Problems with emotions or disturbed relations are in reality small problems. Imagine a huge ocean of problems, but all we are able to see are small problems on the surface, like ripples on the surface of a lake. Thus we ignore the actual root causes of mental illness.
One way of treating mental illness from a Buddhist perspective is to teach a method whereby the student can treat him or herself, a form of analytical or checking meditation. Using this method, every time the person experiences something, a feeling, a perception, whatever, he begins asking himself questions. Why do I feel this way? What experiences in the past caused me to feel this way? What feelings do I associate with this person or thing? The reason we do this is because the Buddhist approach is that all our feelings, perceptions, experiences are all products of our own minds. Therefore if we trace back the feeling or perception or experience to its root we can find why we are experiencing what we are. Usually when we do this we find our feelings or perceptions or experiences stem from fundamentally flawed analysis on our part. When we view the original experience coolly and objectively, it loses much of the power it once had and we can, with practice, break through this conditioned response and learn to experience each event in our life just as it is. Once they find out that there is no one else to blame for their problems they become much happier, respectful of society, their parents, their teachers, and all other people because they know that they are not to blame for him feeling unhappy or afraid or angry or whatever.
The reason people cannot see this for themselves is that they do not understand their own true nature. They live on the basic of habitual tendencies that have accumulated over countless lifetimes, so much so that most of our reactions to things are purely habitual. We don’t even have to think about it.
Serious mental illness where the person becomes delusional or catatonic or sociopathic or severely depressed or any of the other manifestations of mental illness arises from the same basic causes. As Jetsunma Ahkön Lhamo, spiritual director of Kunzang Palyul Chöling, has taught, mental illness is the result of severe self-absorption to the point where contact with reality is completely lost. The problem then becomes reconnecting to the person to help him or her emerge out of his/her own delusions so that they can once again deal with the world as it is.
In conclusion, mental illness arises when there is a conflict between our ordinary, confused , ignorant mind, the mind of samsara, and the primordial wisdom mind that we all possess but pay little attention to.