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 school or work or in relationships. In most cases, symptoms can be managed with a combination of medications and talk therapy (psychotherapy).
Signs and symptoms of mental illness can vary, depending on the disorder, circumstances and other factors. Mental illness symptoms can affect emotions, thoughts and behaviors.
Examples of signs and symptoms include:
- Feeling sad or down
- Confused thinking or reduced ability to concentrate
- Excessive fears or worries, or extreme feelings of guilt
- Extreme mood changes of highs and lows
- Withdrawal from friends and activities
- Significant tiredness, low energy or problems sleeping
- Detachment from reality (delusions), paranoia or hallucinations
- Inability to cope with daily problems or stress
- Trouble understanding and relating to situations and to people
- Alcohol or drug abuse
- Major changes in eating habits
- Sex drive changes
- Excessive anger, hostility or violence
- Suicidal thinking
Sometimes symptoms of a mental health disorder appear as physical problems, such as stomach pain, back pain, headache, or other unexplained aches and pains.
When to see a doctor
If you have any signs or symptoms of a mental illness, see your primary care provider or mental health specialist. Most mental illnesses don't improve on their own, and if untreated, a mental illness may get worse over time and cause serious problems.
If you have suicidal thoughts
Suicidal thoughts and behavior are common with some mental illnesses. If you think you may hurt yourself or attempt suicide, get help right away:
- Call 911 or your local emergency number immediately.
- Call your mental health specialist.
- Call a suicide hotline number — in the U.S., call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255).
- Seek help from your primary care doctor or other health care provider.
- Reach out to a close friend or loved one.
- Contact a minister, spiritual leader or someone else in your faith community.
Suicidal thinking doesn't get better on its own — so get help.
Helping a loved one
If your loved one shows signs of mental illness, have an open and honest discussion with him or her about your concerns. You may not be able to force someone to get professional care, but you can offer encouragement and support. You can also help your loved one find a qualified mental health provider and make an appointment. You may even be able to go along to the appointment.
If your loved one has done self-harm or is 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:
- Inherited traits. Mental illness is more common in people whose blood relatives also have a mental illness. Certain genes may increase your risk of developing a mental illness, and your life situation may trigger it.
- Environmental exposures before birth. Exposure to environmental stressors, inflammatory conditions, toxins, alcohol or drugs while in the womb can sometimes be linked to mental illness.
- Brain chemistry. Neurotransmitters are naturally occurring brain chemicals that carry signals to other parts of your brain and body. When the neural networks involving these chemicals are impaired, the function of nerve receptors and nerve systems change, leading to depression.
Certain factors may increase your risk of developing mental health problems, including:
- Having a blood relative, such as a parent or sibling, with a mental illness
- Stressful life situations, such as financial problems, a loved one's death or a divorce
- An ongoing (chronic) medical condition, such as diabetes
- Brain damage as a result of a serious injury (traumatic brain injury), such as a violent blow to the head
- Traumatic experiences, such as military combat or being assaulted
- Use of alcohol or recreational drugs
- Being abused or neglected as a child
- Having few friends or few healthy relationships
- A previous mental illness
Mental illness is common. About 1 in 5 adults has a mental illness in any given year. Mental illness can begin at any age, from childhood through later adult years, but most begin earlier in life.
The effects of mental illness can be temporary or long lasting. You also can have more than one mental health disorder at the same time. For example, you may have depression and a substance use disorder.
Mental illness is a leading cause of disability. Untreated mental illness can cause severe emotional, behavioral and physical health problems. Complications sometimes linked to mental illness include:
- Unhappiness and decreased enjoyment of life
- Family conflicts
- Relationship difficulties
- Social isolation
- Problems with tobacco, alcohol and other drugs
- Missed work or school, or other problems related to work or school
- Legal and financial problems
- Poverty and homelessness
- Self-harm and harm to others, including suicide or homicide
- Weakened immune system, so your body has a hard time resisting infections
- Heart disease and other medical conditions
Whether you schedule an appointment with your primary care provider 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.
If possible, take a family member or friend along. Someone who has known you for a long time may be able to share important information with your heath care provider, with your permission.
What you can do
Before your appointment, make a list of:
- Any symptoms you or people close to you have noticed, and for how long
- Key personal information, including traumatic events in your past and any current, major stressors
- Your medical information, including other physical or mental health conditions
- Any medications, vitamins, herbal products or other supplements you take, and their doses
- Questions to ask your doctor or mental health provider
Questions to ask include:
- What type of mental illness might I have?
- Why can't I get over mental illness on my own?
- How do you treat my type of mental illness?
- Will talk therapy help?
- Are there medications that might help?
- How long will treatment take?
- What can I do to help myself?
- Do you have any brochures or other printed material that I can have?
- What websites do you recommend?
Don't hesitate to ask any other questions.
What to expect from your doctor
During your appointment, your doctor or mental health provider is likely to ask you several questions about your mood, thoughts and behavior, such as:
- When did you first notice symptoms?
- How is your daily life affected by your symptoms?
- What treatment, if any, have you had for mental illness?
- What have you tried on your own to feel better or control your symptoms?
- What things make you feel worse?
- Have family members or friends commented on your mood or behavior?
- Do you have blood relatives with a mental illness?
- What do you hope to gain from treatment?
- What medications or over-the-counter herbs and supplements do you take?
- Do you drink alcohol or use recreational drugs?
To determine a diagnosis and check for related complications, you may have:
- A physical exam. Your doctor will try to rule out physical problems that could cause your symptoms.
- Lab tests. These may include, for example, a check of your thyroid function or a screening for alcohol and drugs.
- A psychological evaluation. A doctor or mental health provider talks to you about your symptoms, thoughts, feelings and behavior patterns. You may be asked to fill out a questionnaire to help answer these questions.
Determining which mental illness you have
Sometimes it's difficult to find out which mental illness may be causing your symptoms. But taking the time and effort to get an accurate diagnosis will help determine the appropriate treatment.
The defining symptoms for each mental illness are detailed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), published by the American Psychiatric Association. This manual is used by mental health providers to diagnose mental conditions and by insurance companies to reimburse for treatment.
Classes of mental illness
The main classes of mental illness are:
- Neurodevelopmental disorders. This class covers a wide range of problems that usually begin in infancy or childhood, often before the child begins grade school. Examples include autism spectrum disorder, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and learning disorders.
- Schizophrenia spectrum and other psychotic disorders. Psychotic disorders cause detachment from reality — such as delusions, hallucinations, and disorganized thinking and speech. The most notable example is schizophrenia, although other classes of disorders can be associated with detachment from reality at times.
- Bipolar and related disorders. This class includes disorders with alternating episodes of mania — periods of excessive activity, energy and excitement — and depression.
- Depressive disorders. These include disorders that affect how you feel emotionally, such as the level of sadness and happiness, and they can disrupt your ability to function. Examples include major depressive disorder and premenstrual dysphoric disorder.
- Anxiety disorders. Anxiety is an emotion characterized by the anticipation of future danger or misfortune, along with excessive worrying. It can include behavior aimed at avoiding situations that cause anxiety. This class includes generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder and phobias.
- Obsessive-compulsive and related disorders. These disorders involve preoccupations or obsessions and repetitive thoughts and actions. Examples include obsessive-compulsive disorder, hoarding disorder and hair-pulling disorder (trichotillomania).
- Trauma- and stressor-related disorders. These are adjustment disorders in which a person has trouble coping during or after a stressful life event. Examples include post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and acute stress disorder.
- Dissociative disorders. These are disorders in which your sense of self is disrupted, such as with dissociative identity disorder and dissociative amnesia.
- Somatic symptom and related disorders. A person with one of these disorders may have physical symptoms with no clear medical cause, but the disorders are associated with significant distress and impairment. The disorders include somatic symptom disorder (previously known as hypochondriasis) and factitious disorder.
- Feeding and eating disorders. These disorders include disturbances related to eating, such as anorexia nervosa and binge-eating disorder.
- Elimination disorders. These disorders relate to the inappropriate elimination of urine or stool by accident or on purpose. Bedwetting (enuresis) is an example.
- Sleep-wake disorders. These are disorders of sleep severe enough to require clinical attention, such as insomnia, sleep apnea and restless legs syndrome.
- Sexual dysfunctions. These include disorders of sexual response, such as premature ejaculation and female orgasmic disorder.
- Gender dysphoria. This refers to the distress that accompanies a person's stated desire to be another gender.
- Disruptive, impulse-control and conduct disorders. These disorders include problems with emotional and behavioral self-control, such as kleptomania or intermittent explosive disorder.
- Substance-related and addictive disorders. These include problems associated with the excessive use of alcohol, caffeine, tobacco and drugs. This class also includes gambling disorder.
- Neurocognitive disorders. Neurocognitive disorders affect your ability to think and reason. These acquired (rather than developmental) cognitive problems include delirium, as well as neurocognitive disorders due to conditions or diseases such as traumatic brain injury or Alzheimer's disease.
- Personality disorders. A personality disorder involves a lasting pattern of emotional instability and unhealthy behavior that causes problems in your life and relationships. Examples include borderline, antisocial and narcissistic personality disorders.
- Paraphilic disorders. These disorders include sexual interest that causes personal distress or impairment or causes potential or actual harm to another person. Examples are sexual sadism disorder, voyeuristic disorder and pedophilic disorder.
- Other mental disorders. This class includes mental disorders that are due to other medical conditions or that don't meet the full criteria for one of the above disorders.
Your 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
Your treatment team may include your:
- Family or primary care doctor
- Nurse practitioner
- Physician assistant
- Psychiatrist, a medical doctor who diagnoses and treats mental illnesses
- Psychotherapist, such as a psychologist or a licensed counselor
- Social worker
- Family members
Although psychiatric medications don't cure mental illness, they can often significantly improve symptoms. Psychiatric medications can also help make other treatments, such as psychotherapy, more effective. The best medications for you will depend on your particular situation and how your body responds to the medication.
Some of the most commonly used classes of prescription psychiatric medications include:
- Antidepressants. Antidepressants are used to treat depression, anxiety and sometimes other conditions. They can help improve symptoms such as sadness, hopelessness, lack of energy, difficulty concentrating and lack of interest in activities. Antidepressants are not addictive and do not cause dependency.
- Anti-anxiety medications. These drugs are used to treat anxiety disorders, such as generalized anxiety disorder or panic disorder. They may also help reduce agitation and insomnia. Long-term anti-anxiety drugs typically are antidepressants that also work for anxiety. Fast-acting anti-anxiety drugs help with short-term relief, and they also have the potential to cause dependency, so ideally they'd be used short term.
- Mood-stabilizing medications. Mood stabilizers are most commonly used to treat bipolar disorders, which involves alternating episodes of mania and depression. Sometimes mood stabilizers are used with antidepressants to treat depression.
- Antipsychotic medications. Antipsychotic drugs are typically used to treat psychotic disorders, such as schizophrenia. Antipsychotic medications may also be used to treat bipolar disorders or used with antidepressants to treat depression.
Psychotherapy, also called talk therapy, involves talking about your condition and related issues with a mental health provider. During psychotherapy, you learn about your condition and your moods, feelings, thoughts and behavior. With the insights and knowledge you gain, you can learn coping and stress management skills.
There are many 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 needed. It can take place one-on-one, in a group or with family members.
When choosing a therapist, you should feel comfortable and be confident that he or she is capable of listening and hearing what you have to say. Also, it's important that your therapist understands the life journey that has helped shape who you are and how you live in the world.
Brain-stimulation treatments are sometimes used for depression and other mental health disorders. They're generally reserved for situations in which medications and psychotherapy haven't worked. They include electroconvulsive therapy, transcranial magnetic stimulation, an experimental treatment called deep brain stimulation and vagus nerve stimulation.
Make sure you understand all the risks and benefits of any recommended treatment.
Hospital and residential treatment programs
Sometimes mental illness becomes so severe that you need care in a psychiatric hospital. This is generally recommended when you can't care for yourself properly or when you're in immediate danger of harming yourself or someone else.
Options include 24-hour inpatient care, partial or day hospitalization, or residential treatment, which offers a temporary supportive place to live. Another option may be intensive outpatient treatment.
Substance abuse treatment
Substance abuse commonly occurs along with mental illness. Often it interferes with treatment and worsens mental illness. If you can't stop using drugs or alcohol on your own, you need treatment. Talk to your doctor about treatment options.
Participating in your own care
Working together, you and your health care provider can decide which treatment may be best, depending on your symptoms and their severity, your personal preferences, medication side effects, and other factors. In some cases, a mental illness may be so severe that a doctor or loved one may need to guide your care until you're well enough to participate in decision-making.
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:
- Stick to your treatment plan. Don't skip therapy sessions. Even if you're feeling better, don't skip your medications. If you stop, symptoms may come back. And you could have withdrawal-like symptoms if you stop a medication too suddenly. If you have bothersome drug side effects or other problems with treatment, talk to your doctor before making changes.
- Avoid alcohol and drug use. Using alcohol or recreational drugs can make it difficult to treat a mental illness. If you're addicted, quitting can be a real challenge. If you can't quit on your own, see your doctor or find a support group to help you.
- Stay active. Exercise can help you manage symptoms of depression, stress and anxiety. Physical activity can also counteract the effects of some psychiatric medications that may cause weight gain. Consider walking, swimming, gardening or any form of physical activity that you enjoy. Even light physical activity can make a difference.
- Don't make important decisions when your symptoms are severe. Avoid decision-making when you're in the depth of mental illness symptoms, since you may not be thinking clearly.
- Determine priorities. You may reduce the impact of your mental illness by managing time and energy. Cut back on obligations when necessary and set reasonable goals. Give yourself permission to do less when symptoms are worse. You may find it helpful to make a list of daily tasks or use a planner to structure your time and stay organized.
- Learn to adopt a positive attitude. Focusing on the positive things in your life can make your life better and may even improve your health. Try to accept changes when they occur, and keep problems in perspective. Stress management techniques, including relaxation methods, may help.
Coping with a mental illness is challenging. Talk to your doctor or therapist about improving your coping skills, and consider these tips:
- Learn about your mental illness. Your doctor or therapist can provide you with information or may recommend classes, books or websites. Include your family, too — this can help the people who care about you understand what you're going through and learn how they can help.
- Join a support group. Connecting with others facing similar challenges may help you cope. Support groups for mental illness are available in many communities and online. One good place to start is the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
- Stay connected with friends and family. Try to participate in social activities, and get together with family or friends regularly. Ask for help when you need it, and be upfront with your loved ones about how you're doing.
- Keep a journal. Keeping track of your personal life can help you and your mental health provider identify what triggers or improves your symptoms. It's also a healthy way to explore and express pain, anger, fear and other emotions.
There's no sure way to prevent mental illness. However, if you 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:
- Pay attention to warning signs. Work with your doctor or therapist to learn what might trigger your symptoms. Make a plan so that you know what to do if symptoms return. Contact your doctor or therapist if you notice any changes in symptoms or how you feel. Consider involving family members or friends to watch for warning signs.
- Get routine medical care. Don't neglect checkups or skip visits to your health care provider, especially if you aren't feeling well. You may have a new health problem that needs to be treated, or you may be experiencing side effects of medication.
- Get help when you need it. Mental health conditions can be harder to treat if you wait until symptoms get bad. Long-term maintenance treatment also may help prevent a relapse of symptoms.
- Take good care of yourself. Sufficient sleep, healthy eating and regular physical activity are important. Try to maintain a regular schedule. Talk to your health care provider if you have trouble sleeping or if you have questions about diet and physical activity.