Mental illness refers to a wide range of mental health conditions — disorders that affect your mood, thinking and behavior. Examples of mental illness include depression, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, eating disorders and addictive behaviors.
Many people have mental health concerns from time to time. But a mental health concern becomes a mental illness when ongoing signs and symptoms cause frequent stress and affect your ability to function. A mental illness can make you miserable and can cause problems in your daily life, such as at work or in relationships. In most cases, mental illness symptoms can be managed with a combination of medications and counseling (psychotherapy).
Signs and symptoms of mental illness can vary, depending on the particular disorder, circumstances and other factors. Mental illness symptoms can affect emotions, thoughts and behaviors.
Examples of signs and symptoms include:
Sometimes symptoms of a mental health disorder appear as physical problems, such as abdominal pain, back pain, headache, or other unexplained aches and pains.
Is it mental illness?
With some types of mental illness, though, such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, you may not realize the extent of your problems — instead, it may be family members or friends who first become aware that you have a mental illness.
When to see a doctor
If you have suicidal thoughts
Suicidal thinking doesn't get better on its own — so get help.
Helping a loved one
If your loved one has harmed himself or herself, or is seriously considering doing so, take the person to the hospital, or call for emergency help.
Mental illnesses, in general, are thought to be caused by a variety of genetic and environmental factors:
Certain factors may increase your risk of developing mental health problems, including:
Mental illness is common. About 1 in 4 adults has a mental illness in any given year. About half of U.S. adults will develop a mental illness sometime in their lives. Mental illness can begin at any age, from childhood through later adult years.
Mental illness is a leading cause of disability. Aside from reducing your quality of life, untreated mental illness can cause severe emotional, behavioral and physical health problems. Mental illness can also cause legal and financial problems. Complications linked to mental illness include:
Preparing for your appointment
Whether you schedule an appointment with your primary care doctor to talk about mental health concerns or you're referred to a mental health provider, such as a psychiatrist or psychologist, take steps to prepare for your appointment.
What you can do
Write down a list of questions to ask. These may include:
In addition to the questions that you've prepared, don't hesitate to ask questions anytime you don't understand something.
What to expect from your doctor
Tests and diagnosis
To determine a diagnosis and check for any related complications, you may have these exams and tests:
Determining which mental illness you have
The defining symptoms for each mental illness are detailed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) published by the American Psychiatric Association. Mental health providers use this manual to diagnose mental conditions, and insurance companies use it to reimburse for treatment. To be diagnosed with a particular mental illness, you must meet the criteria listed in the DSM.
Classes of mental illness
Treatments and drugs
Your particular treatment depends on the type of mental illness you have, its severity and what works best for you. In many cases, a combination of treatments works best.
If you have a mild mental illness with well-controlled symptoms, treatment from one health care provider may be sufficient. However, often a team approach is appropriate to make sure all your psychiatric, medical and social needs are met. This is especially important for severe mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia.
Your treatment team
Here's an overview of some of the most commonly used classes of prescription psychiatric medications:
There are many specific types of psychotherapy, each with its own approach to improving your mental well-being. Psychotherapy often can be successfully completed in a few months, but in some cases, long-term treatment may be helpful. It can take place one-on-one, in a group or along with family members.
Make sure you understand all the risks and benefits of any recommended treatment.
Hospitalization and residential treatment programs
Substance abuse treatment
Participating in your own care
Lifestyle and home remedies
In most cases, a mental illness won't get better if you try to treat it on your own without professional care. But you can do some things for yourself that will build on your treatment plan:
Coping and support
Coping with a mental illness can be challenging. Talk to your doctor or therapist about improving your coping skills, and consider these tips:
There's no sure way to prevent mental illness. However, if you do have a mental illness, taking steps to control stress, to increase your resilience and to boost low self-esteem may help keep your symptoms under control. Follow these steps:
Last Updated: 2012-09-15
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