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What is Mental Illness?

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Mental Illness Overview

A mental illness is a disease that causes mild to severe disruptions in how people think, feel and behave.

Like other organs in our bodies, our brain is vulnerable to disease and disorders. And, just like other diseases, such as diabetes or pneumonia, mental illnesses can have physical as well as psychological symptoms.

The good news is that with appropriate care and treatment, many people with mental disorders can get better, resume normal activities, and learn to cope with or recover from a mental illness.

There are more than 200 defined types of mental illness (psychiatric illnesses) classified in The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5). Published by the American Psychiatric Association, the DSM-5 is used by mental health practitioners in the United States for diagnosis of mental disorders.

Mental illnesses include major depressionschizophreniabipolar disorderobsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)panic disorderpost-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)addictions and borderline personality disorder.

Most mental illnesses are experienced on a spectrum of severity: At one end are well-adjusted, successful individuals whose disorders are invisible to others. At the other end of the spectrum are individuals who are too severely impaired to lead normal lives – the extreme that most people think of when they hear “mentally ill.” 

Causes of mental disorders

Although doctors and researchers continue to gain additional knowledge about the brain, many of it's functions are still not completely understood. The underlying causes of mental illnesses are considered to be biopsychosocial – that is, varying parts biological (your physical body), psychological (your emotions and experiences) and social (your environment). These components span:

  • Biological issues, such as genes, physical illness, injury or brain chemistry.
  • Developmental experiences, including adverse childhood experiences (e.g. trauma, abuse).
  • Social issues, such as poverty, unemployment, job stress, or loss through death or divorce.

Research points to mental health problems as a reaction to excessive stresses, genetic factors, biochemical imbalances, or the interplay of all three. They are not caused by character flaws, laziness or personal weakness. Many people need professional help, such as treatment with therapy and/or medication, to improve.

What are common symptoms of psychiatric illnesses?

Common psychiatric symptoms include:
  • Excessive anxiety
  • A depressed mood or a mood that fluctuates excessively
  • Disturbing thoughts
  • Behaviors that are harmful or disturbing to one’s self or to others
  • Memory problems
  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Seeing or hearing things that are not perceived by others
  • Changes in personality, personal habits and/or social withdrawal
  • Extreme sadness
  • Irritability

Nearly 28 percent of Americans will meet criteria for a mental disorder at some point in their lifetime.

Some of these disorders will be mild and not interfere with social or occupational functioning, nor necessarily cause personal distress. For example, someone with a specific phobia, such as a fear of dogs or of riding in elevators, may be able to manage life without difficulty.

However, most disorders will cause distress, and/or occupational or social dysfunction. About 18 percent of Americans have a mental disorder that does cause such distress. Unfortunately, many in this category do not seek help for their condition.

When should a person seek help?

As with most medical problems, early treatment leads to better outcomes.

Sometimes people don’t seek treatment because they don't know what treatment options are available; they may feel embarrassed or ashamed; or they may not know that their thinking or behavior is a problem.

If you or someone you know is experiencing symptoms that may indicate a psychiatric disorder, a consultation with a mental health professional or your primary care physician should be considered.

How common are mental disorders and illnesses?

Mental illness can affect anyone regardless of age, race, religion, origins or socioeconomic status. In 2013, nearly one in five U.S. adults had some form of mental illness in the past year.  An estimated one in 25 adults had a serious mental illness in the past year.

Unfortunately, mental illness usually strikes individuals in the prime of their lives, often during adolescence and young adulthood. We know that 50 percent of people who develop a psychiatric illness have symptoms of a disorder before age 14, and 75 percent will have symptoms by age 25. All ages are susceptible, but the young and the old are especially vulnerable.

The information on this site is for informational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your qualified mental health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. We do not recommend or endorse any specific tests, mental health providers, products, procedures, opinions, or other information that may be mentioned on this site. Reliance on any information provided herein is solely at your own risk.

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