What is Mental Illness?

May 13, 2024

Explore 'what is mental illness?', break stigmas, and discover resources for assistance and understanding.

Understanding Mental Illness

Mental health is a crucial aspect of overall well-being. However, it is often misunderstood because of stigma and lack of awareness. To begin breaking these barriers, it's important to answer the question: 'what is mental illness?'

Overview of Mental Health

Mental illness, also referred to as mental health disorders, encompasses a wide range of conditions that affect mood, thinking, and behavior. It's a general term for a group of illnesses that may include symptoms affecting a person's thinking, perceptions, mood, or behavior. Most people can manage mental illness with medication, counseling, or both.

Mental illness can make it difficult for someone to cope with work, relationships, and other demands. The effects of these conditions can be temporary or long lasting and can affect an individual's ability to function in daily life. However, with the right treatment and support, people with mental illnesses can lead fulfilling and productive lives.

Common Types of Mental Illnesses

There are many types of mental illnesses, and they can affect individuals differently. Some of the most common forms include depression, anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. These conditions can cause symptoms such as persistent feelings of sadness, excessive fear or worry, extreme mood swings, and confused thinking or reduced ability to concentrate.

Common Mental Illnesses Description
Depression Persistent feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and lack of interest in activities.
Anxiety Disorders Characterized by excessive fear, worry, and physiological symptoms such as rapid heart rate.
Bipolar Disorder A disorder that causes extreme mood swings including emotional highs (mania) and lows (depression).
Schizophrenia A serious mental disorder that affects how a person thinks, feels, and behaves. Symptoms can include delusions and hallucinations.

Less common types of mental illnesses exist beyond the more prevalent ones such as depersonalization disorder, dissociative identity disorder, and specific phobias [3]. Various sleep-related problems and several forms of dementia, like Alzheimer's disease, are also considered mental illnesses due to their brain involvement.

Understanding the diverse types of mental illnesses is a crucial step toward breaking the stigma associated with them. It's important to remember that mental illness is not a sign of weakness or a character flaw. It's an illness, just like any physical illness, and it deserves understanding, empathy, and appropriate treatment.

Diagnosis and Treatment

Understanding 'what is mental illness?' involves not only recognizing the types and symptoms but also navigating the processes of diagnosis and treatment.

Diagnostic Process

Diagnosing mental illness is a critical step towards getting the necessary treatment. Mental health professionals use the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) to diagnose mental conditions. This manual contains descriptions, symptoms, and other criteria necessary for diagnosing mental health disorders. It's also used by insurance companies to determine the coverage for treatment.

The diagnostic process usually begins with a mental health professional conducting a thorough evaluation. This involves asking about your symptoms, your thoughts, feelings and behavior patterns, and any past mental health issues. They may also discuss your physical health and perform a physical exam to rule out other conditions that could be causing your symptoms.

Treatment Options

Once a diagnosis is made, treatment can begin. The type of treatment for mental illness depends on the specific illness, its severity, and what works best for the individual. Often, a combination of treatments is most effective. Treatment options can include medication, counseling (therapy), social support, and education.

Psychotherapy, also known as talk therapy, involves discussing one's condition and related issues with a mental health professional. There are several types of psychotherapy, including cognitive behavioral therapy, interpersonal therapy, and dialectical behavior therapy. Each therapy type has its own approach, and the type of therapy used can depend on a range of factors, including the nature of your mental health disorder and what works best for you.

Medications are often used in combination with psychotherapy. Depending on the type of mental illness, different medications may be used, such as antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications, mood-stabilizing medications, or antipsychotic medications.

For severe cases of mental health disorders where medications and psychotherapy haven't worked, brain-stimulation treatments like electroconvulsive therapy may be an option [4].

Getting a diagnosis is just the first step; knowing your own preferences and goals is also important. There’s no “one size fits all” treatment. Reach out to your health insurance, primary care doctor, or state/county mental health authority for more resources. Contact the NAMI HelpLine to find out what services and supports are available in your community.

Global Impact of Mental Illness

Mental illness has a significant impact on a global scale, affecting a substantial portion of the world's population. It's crucial to understand the statistics behind these disorders and recognize the stigma and discrimination that people with mental illnesses often face.

Statistics on Mental Disorders

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), in 2019, one in every eight people, or 970 million individuals worldwide, were living with a mental disorder [6]. The most common mental disorders include anxiety and depressive disorders.

Mental Disorder Number of People Affected
Anxiety disorders 301 million
Depressive disorders 280 million
Schizophrenia 24 million
Eating disorders 14 million

The above table provides an overview of the estimated number of people affected by various mental disorders globally.

Anxiety disorders, characterized by excessive fear and worry, affected 301 million individuals globally. Meanwhile, 280 million people worldwide were living with depression, a condition characterized by a depressive episode lasting for at least two weeks with symptoms like feelings of excessive guilt, hopelessness, and disruptions in sleep and appetite.

Schizophrenia, a disorder characterized by significant impairments in perception and behavior, including hallucinations, disorganized thinking, and cognitive difficulties, affected approximately 24 million people, or one in 300 individuals globally.

Eating disorders, which cause abnormal eating behaviors, preoccupation with food, and significant risk to health or impairment in functioning, affected 14 million individuals worldwide.

Stigma and Discrimination

Stigma and discrimination are serious issues that often accompany mental illness. Stigma is when someone views a person in a negative way because of a particular characteristic or attribute, such as mental illness. When someone treats a person negatively because of their mental illness, this is discrimination.

Stigma happens when a person defines someone by their illness rather than who they are as an individual. For instance, they might be labelled ‘psychotic’ rather than ‘a person experiencing psychosis’.

For people with mental health issues, the social stigma and discrimination they experience can make their problems worse, making it harder to recover. It may cause the person to avoid getting the help they need because of the fear of being stigmatized.

Stigma and discrimination against people with mental illness can lead to harm and individuals, as well as their loved ones, are affected by it. People may avoid treatment due to concerns about being treated differently, losing their jobs, or facing stigma-related barriers to care.

Media representations of individuals with mental illness can impact perceptions and contribute to stigma. Negative, inaccurate, or violent depictions in media, such as the film "Joker" from 2019, have been associated with higher levels of prejudice towards those with mental illness.

Stigma and discrimination can worsen symptoms, reduce the likelihood of seeking treatment, lead to self-stigma, and have negative effects on recovery among individuals diagnosed with severe mental illnesses.

Specific Mental Health Conditions

While there is a wide range of mental health conditions that individuals may experience, this section will discuss four common types: depression, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder.

Depression and Anxiety Disorders

Depression is a mood disorder characterized by a persistent feeling of sadness, loss of interest or pleasure in activities, and decreased energy. The severity of depression can vary greatly from person to person, and in severe cases, it can lead to suicidal thoughts or behaviors.

On the other hand, anxiety disorders are characterized by excessive fear and worry, leading to significant distress or impairment in functioning. According to the World Health Organization, anxiety disorders affected 301 million individuals globally in 2019 [6].

Mental Health Condition Key Characteristics Global Impact
Depression Persistent sadness, loss of interest, decreased energy Increased risk of suicidal thoughts or behaviors
Anxiety Disorders Excessive fear and worry Affected 301 million individuals in 2019

Schizophrenia and Bipolar Disorder

Schizophrenia is a complex psychotic disorder characterized by disruptions to thinking and emotions, and a distorted perception of reality. Symptoms can include hallucinations, delusions, thought disorders, social withdrawal, lack of motivation, and impaired thinking and memory. It's important to note that individuals with schizophrenia have a high risk of suicide [2]. Schizophrenia affected approximately 24 million people, or 1 in 300 individuals globally, in 2019.

Bipolar disorder, formerly known as 'manic depression,' is a mental illness characterized by severe mood swings that include episodes of mania (highs) and depression (lows). The exact cause of bipolar disorder is unknown, but a genetic predisposition has been established. Environmental stressors can trigger episodes of this mental illness.

Mental Health Condition Key Characteristics Global Impact
Schizophrenia Disruptions to thinking and emotions, distorted perception of reality Affected 24 million people in 2019
Bipolar Disorder Severe mood swings (highs and lows) Genetic predisposition, triggered by environmental stressors

Understanding these specific mental health conditions helps to answer the question, "What is mental illness?" By knowing the symptoms and effects of these disorders, we can better understand the experiences of individuals living with these conditions and work towards breaking the stigma associated with mental illness.

Symptoms and Effects

Understanding the signs and effects of mental illness is crucial in recognizing and responding to these conditions in a timely manner. In this section, we delve into the common symptoms of mental illnesses and their impact on daily functioning.

Signs of Mental Illness

Mental illnesses involve changes in emotion, thinking, or behavior and can be associated with distress and/or problems functioning in social, work, or family activities. These symptoms can manifest through various emotions, thoughts, and behaviors, and in some cases, may present as physical problems like stomach pain, back pain, headaches, or other unexplained aches and pains.

Mental health conditions can also begin to develop in young children. Because they’re still learning how to identify and talk about thoughts and emotions, their most obvious symptoms are behavioral. Symptoms in children may include changes in school performance, excessive worry or anxiety, frequent temper tantrums, and persistent nightmares among others.

While the presentation of symptoms may vary greatly depending on the specific type of mental illness, recognizing these signs is a crucial step towards seeking help and initiating treatment.

Impact on Daily Functioning

The effects of mental illness extend beyond individual symptoms and can significantly impact a person's daily functioning. Mental illnesses can take many forms, ranging from mild conditions that interfere in limited ways with daily life to severe conditions requiring hospital care [9].

Mental illness can lead to significant distress and impair one's ability to function in daily life, such as at school, work, or in relationships. Untreated mental illness can lead to severe emotional, behavioral, and physical health issues, making it a leading cause of disability, with complications sometimes linked to mental illness, such as substance use disorders.

Mental health is the foundation for emotions, thinking, communication, learning, resilience and self-esteem, and is key to relationships, personal well-being, and contributing to the community or society. It can influence and be influenced by physical health.

Recognizing the impact of mental illness on daily functioning is crucial in understanding the depth and breadth of these conditions. It underscores the importance of seeking help and support, and mitigates the stigma often associated with mental illnesses.

Seeking Help and Support

Understanding mental illness is only the first step. Seeking help and support is the next crucial phase. This section will explore available resources for assistance and strategies for overcoming the stigma associated with mental illness.

Resources for Assistance

There are numerous resources available for those who are dealing with mental illnesses. These can range from professional healthcare providers to support groups, both online and offline. Many organizations offer free or low-cost mental health services, and some even provide assistance in finding employment, housing, or other necessities.

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health issues, it's important to remember that help is available. Reach out to a healthcare provider or mental health professional for guidance and support. You can also tap into resources offered by mental health organizations and advocacy groups. These entities often provide free educational materials, support networks, and other tools to help individuals navigate their mental health journey.

Overcoming Stigma

Unfortunately, stigma, prejudice, and discrimination can pose significant obstacles for individuals with mental illness. These barriers can lead to harm, and individuals, as well as their loved ones, are often affected by it.

Negative media representations can contribute to such stigma, impacting perceptions and leading to higher levels of prejudice towards those with mental illness. Furthermore, stigma and discrimination can exacerbate symptoms, reduce the likelihood of seeking treatment, and negatively impact recovery.

According to a 2022 national poll by the American Psychiatric Association, mental health stigma remains a significant challenge in the workplace, leading to decreased levels of open discussions about mental health and discomfort in using mental health services among workers.

Stigma is when someone sees you in a negative way because of a particular characteristic or attribute, such as mental illness. This can make their problems worse and make it harder to recover. It may cause the person to avoid getting the help they need because of the fear of being stigmatized.

However, there are successful interventions to reduce stigma. These include knowing or having contact with someone with mental illness, individuals sharing their stories, the effectiveness of brief videos, and anti-stigma social marketing campaigns.

Overcoming stigma is an ongoing process, but it is possible. By creating safe spaces for open conversations, educating oneself and others about mental illness, and advocating for fair treatment, we can begin to break down the barriers of stigma and discrimination. The journey towards understanding what mental illness truly is begins with empathy, education, and acceptance.


[1]: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/mental-illness/symptoms-causes/syc-20374968

[2]: https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/servicesandsupport/types-of-mental-health-issues-and-illnesses

[3]: https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/mental-health-types-illness

[4]: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/mental-illness/diagnosis-treatment/drc-20374974

[5]: https://www.nami.org/About-Mental-Illness/Warning-Signs-and-Symptoms/

[6]: https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/mental-disorders

[7]: https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/servicesandsupport/stigma-discrimination-and-mental-illness

[8]: https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/stigma-and-discrimination

[9]: https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/what-is-mental-illness