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 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 and other factors. Mental illness symptoms can affect emotions, thoughts and behaviors. Sometimes symptoms of a mental health disorder appear as physical problems.
Abnormal thinking, behavior and emotions
Is it mental illness?
In general, signs and symptoms may indicate a mental illness when they make you miserable and interfere with your ability to function in your daily life. You may have trouble coping with stress, anger or other emotions. Or you may find it difficult to handle family, work or school responsibilities.
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
If you're feeling suicidal but you aren't immediately thinking of hurting yourself:
Helping a loved one
There's no specific identifiable cause of mental illness. Mental illnesses, in general, are thought to be caused by a variety of genetic and environmental factors:
Although the precise cause of mental illness isn't known, 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. And nearly half of them have more than one mental illness at the same time. 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 overall 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
You may decide to schedule an appointment with your primary care doctor to talk about mental health concerns. Or your doctor may ask about your mood, thoughts or behavior during a routine medical appointment.
Because mental illness often requires specialized care, your primary care doctor may refer you to a mental health provider, such as a psychiatrist, psychologist or other mental health provider.
What you can do
In addition to the questions that you've prepared, don't hesitate to ask questions during your appointment if you don't understand something.
What to expect from your doctor
Tests and diagnosis
Your doctor will try to rule out any physical problems that could be causing your symptoms, pinpoint a diagnosis and check for any related complications. These steps may include:
Pinpointing which mental illness you have
The defining symptoms for each mental illness are detailed in a book called "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders." This manual is published by the American Psychiatric Association and is used by mental health providers to diagnose mental conditions and by insurance companies to reimburse for treatment.
To be diagnosed with a particular mental illness, you must meet the criteria for that illness listed in the DSM. Mental illnesses are grouped in the DSM based on their symptoms. Doctors sometimes disagree about what's considered normal or abnormal mental health. The process of deciding what's a mental illness continues to evolve.
Classes of mental illness
Treatments and drugs
Your treatment depends on your particular mental illness, its severity and your life situation. Often a team approach is appropriate to make sure all of your psychiatric, medical and social needs are met. This is especially important with severe mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia.
If you have a mild mental illness and your symptoms are well controlled, you may need treatment from only your primary care doctor, a psychiatrist or a psychotherapist.
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. The type of psychotherapy that's right for you depends on your individual situation. Examples of psychotherapies include cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), interpersonal therapy (IPT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT).
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. In addition to professional treatment, follow these lifestyle and self-care steps for mental illness:
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: 2010-09-01
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