What is Mental Illness?

Unravel 'what is mental illness?' in this comprehensive guide covering symptoms, causes, and treatments.

Understanding Mental Illness

Beginning the journey of demystifying mental illness, it's essential to start with a comprehensive understanding of what mental illness is.

Defining Mental Illness

Mental illness, as defined by reputable sources, refers to a wide range of mental health conditions that affect mood, thinking, and behavior. These conditions can be associated with distress and/or problems functioning in social, work, or family activities.

It's important to recognize that mental health is a key component of overall well-being and can influence and be influenced by physical health. It's the foundation for emotions, thinking, communication, learning, resilience, hope, and self-esteem, playing a vital role in personal and emotional well-being, relationships, and contributing to the community or society.

These mental health conditions can cause problems in daily life, such as at school, work, and in relationships. They are treatable, with the vast majority of individuals with mental illness continuing to function in their daily lives. Treatment often involves a combination of medications and talk therapy.

Common Types of Mental Illness

Mental illnesses take many forms, ranging from mild conditions that interfere in limited ways with daily life to severe conditions requiring hospital care. These conditions depend on the illness and the severity of its impact, similar to other medical illnesses.

It's common for individuals to have more than one mental health disorder concurrently, such as depression and substance use disorder. Furthermore, mental health disorders can begin at any age, but most cases start earlier in life [1].

Mental health conditions, such as depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, eating disorders, and addictive behaviors, are common in the United States. Approximately 1 in 5 adults and adolescents live with a mental health disorder. Importantly, about half of all mental illnesses begin by age 14 and three-quarters begin by age 24.

The occurrence of mental health disorders varies between genders. People designated female at birth (DFAB) more commonly experience depression, anxiety, and eating disorders, while people designated male at birth (DMAB) are more likely to experience substance abuse and antisocial personality disorders. Behavioral problems and ADHD are more common in adolescents [3].

Understanding what mental illness is and its common types is the first step towards debunking myths and misconceptions, promoting awareness, and fostering a supportive environment for those affected.

Causes of Mental Health Conditions

In order to better understand 'what is mental illness?', it is essential to delve into the causes behind these conditions. According to WebMD, mental health conditions often arise from a complex interplay of biological, psychological, and environmental factors. It is crucial to note that these factors don't operate in isolation but rather converge to contribute to the onset of mental illness.

Biological Factors

Biological factors are a significant component in the development of mental health conditions. Some mental illnesses can be hereditary, i.e., they can run in families. However, having a family member with a mental illness does not automatically guarantee that one will develop the condition as well.

Moreover, abnormalities in nerve cell circuits or pathways in the brain could be associated with certain mental conditions. These abnormalities can impact how different regions of the brain communicate through neurotransmitters. Treatments such as medications or psychotherapy can modify these chemicals, enhancing the functioning of brain circuits.

Psychological Factors

Psychological factors also play a crucial role in the onset of mental health conditions. Traumatic events or major stressors during childhood or adolescence, such as the death of a loved one, divorce, family issues, job loss, school problems, and substance abuse, can act as triggers for certain mental disorders. However, it's important to note that not everyone who experiences these stressors will develop a mental illness.

Environmental Factors

Environmental factors can also contribute to the development of mental health conditions. Social and economic disparities, for instance, can have a profound impact on mental health, affecting individuals across different age groups, including immigrants. Research suggests that socioeconomic factors such as inequality can play a role in the onset of mental illness.

In summary, the causes of mental illness are multifaceted, often involving a combination of biological, psychological, and environmental factors. Understanding these factors is key to promoting mental health and developing effective strategies for the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of mental health conditions.

Symptoms and Diagnosis of Mental Illness

When seeking to answer the question, 'what is mental illness?', it's essential to understand the symptoms and diagnostic processes involved.

Recognizing the Symptoms

Mental illnesses take many forms, ranging from mild conditions that interfere with daily life to severe conditions requiring hospital care. These illnesses are health conditions involving changes in emotion, thinking, or behavior, or a combination of these. They can be associated with distress and/or problems functioning in social, work, or family activities.

Symptoms of mental illness can vary greatly depending on the specific disorder, but common signs may include:

  • Feeling sad or down
  • Excessive fears or worries
  • Extreme mood changes
  • Withdrawal from friends and activities
  • Major changes in eating habits
  • Excessive anger, hostility or violence
  • Difficulty perceiving reality

It's important to note that experiencing one or more of these symptoms doesn't necessarily mean someone has a mental illness. Many factors could contribute to these feelings, such as physical health conditions, stress, or life events. However, if these symptoms persist or cause significant distress, it's advisable to seek professional help.

The Role of DSM-5 in Diagnosis

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), plays a crucial role in diagnosing mental illness. Published by the American Psychiatric Association, DSM-5 provides a comprehensive list of mental disorders, their symptoms, and guidelines for their diagnosis.

DSM-5 classifies mental disorders into categories based on criteria that professionals use to diagnose. These categories include, but are not limited to:

  • Neurodevelopmental Disorders
  • Schizophrenia Spectrum and Other Psychotic Disorders
  • Bipolar and Related Disorders
  • Depressive Disorders
  • Anxiety Disorders
  • Obsessive-Compulsive and Related Disorders
  • Trauma- and Stressor-Related Disorders

A diagnosis of mental illness involves a thorough evaluation by a mental health professional. This may include a physical exam, psychological evaluation, and the use of diagnostic criteria from DSM-5. The process aims to identify any mental health condition accurately and determine the best course of treatment.

Understanding the symptoms and diagnostic processes is a significant step in demystifying mental illness. Recognition and early intervention can lead to better management and outcomes, highlighting the importance of awareness and education in mental health.

Prevalence of Mental Illness

Mental illness is a common condition, with about 1 in 5 adults experiencing a mental illness within a year. It is a leading cause of disability and can result in severe emotional, behavioral, and physical health problems if left untreated. As we delve into the prevalence of mental illness, we will focus on adolescents and the global impact.

Mental Illness in Adolescents

Half of all mental health disorders show the first signs before a person turns 14-years-old, and three-quarters of mental health disorders begin before age 24. However, only half of children and adolescents with diagnosable mental health conditions receive the treatment they need.

Teenagers are known to have mood swings; however, this does not mean that adolescents may not also struggle with their mental health. Fourteen per cent of the world’s adolescents experience mental-health problems. Globally, among those aged 10–15, suicide is the fifth most prevalent cause of death, and for adolescents aged 15–19, it is the fourth most common cause. Given these statistics, it's clear that mental health conditions are starting early in life.

Mental Illness in Adolescents Prevalence (%)
Mental Health Disorders 14
Suicide (age 10-15) 5th leading cause of death
Suicide (age 15-19) 4th leading cause of death

Global Impact of Mental Illness

On a global level, the impact of mental illness is significant. In 2019, 280 million people were living with depression, including 23 million children and adolescents, and 301 million people were living with an anxiety disorder, including 58 million children and adolescents [7].

Additionally, 40 million people experienced bipolar disorder and approximately 24 million people worldwide were affected by schizophrenia in the same year [7].

Global Impact of Mental Illness Number of people affected (Millions)
Depression 280
Anxiety Disorders 301
Bipolar Disorder 40
Schizophrenia 24

These numbers underscore the pervasive impact of mental illness on a global scale. Mental illnesses take many forms, ranging from mild conditions that interfere in limited ways with daily life to severe conditions requiring hospital care. Optimal care for mental health conditions depends on the illness and the severity of its impact, similar to other medical illnesses.

Treatment and Management of Mental Illness

The management of mental illness often involves a multifaceted approach, combining medication, therapy, and support systems to ensure the best outcomes. Understanding the role of these components is key to understanding the overall treatment strategy for mental illness.

Role of Medication and Therapy

Treatment for mental health conditions varies depending on the individual and could include medication, therapy, or both [5]. Psychotherapy, also known as talk therapy, is a common treatment approach involving discussions about the condition and related issues with a mental health professional. This process allows individuals to explore their feelings, thoughts, and behaviors in a safe and supportive environment [8].

Medication is another key element in the treatment of many mental illnesses. These medications can help manage symptoms such as anxiety, depression, or psychosis. The type of medication prescribed will depend on the specific mental illness being treated.

In cases where medications and psychotherapy are not effective, brain-stimulation treatments like electroconvulsive therapy, repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation, deep brain stimulation, and vagus nerve stimulation may be used [8].

In severe cases of mental illness where there is an immediate danger of harm to oneself or others, or self-care is lacking, hospitalization in a psychiatric hospital is sometimes necessary. This provides a safe environment where individuals can receive intensive therapy and medication under close medical supervision [8].

Importance of Support Systems

A crucial part of the recovery process for those battling mental illnesses is the support system they have in place. This can range from family and friends to professional mental health support groups. The presence and involvement of a strong support system can significantly enhance the effectiveness of therapy and medication.

Support systems provide emotional assistance, helping individuals feel understood and less isolated as they navigate their mental health journey. They can also help with practical aspects, such as reminding individuals to take prescribed medications or attend therapy sessions.

Mental health treatment is typically individualized, based on a plan developed collaboratively with a mental health clinician. This plan may include psychotherapy, medication, or other treatments. Complementary and alternative therapies are also increasingly being used. Lifestyle changes, self-help, and support are crucial for coping, recovery, and overall well-being [2].

In conclusion, while mental illnesses can be challenging, most people with behavioral health disorders can manage their symptoms and lead full, fulfilling lives with the right treatments. Some may need to manage a mental illness for the rest of their lives, while others find that symptoms improve as they get older. Mental illnesses tend to peak in young adults ages 18 to 25, then diminish greatly after 50. Additionally, mental illness can increase the risk for certain health conditions such as stroke, Type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.

Debunking Myths about Mental Illness

In order to foster understanding and empathy for individuals with mental health conditions, it's essential to debunk common myths and misconceptions that often surround mental illness.

Mental Illness and Weakness

A prevalent misconception is the association of mental illness with personal weakness or lack of willpower. However, mental health conditions are not a reflection of a person's character or determination. They are not conditions that people choose to have or not have, and they have nothing to do with being lazy or weak.

Mental illnesses are thought to be caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors, with certain elements increasing the risk of developing a mental illness. They take many forms, ranging from mild conditions that interfere in limited ways with daily life, to severe conditions requiring hospital care.

Recognizing the need to accept help for a mental health condition requires great strength and courage. It's essential to remember that anyone can develop a mental health condition, and it's not a sign of weakness but a part of human experience.

Mental Illness and Socioeconomic Status

Another common myth is that mental illness is strictly tied to socioeconomic status. This is not true. While many factors – including poverty, unemployment, and exposure to violence – may influence the well-being and mental health of individuals, mental illnesses can affect anyone, regardless of their socioeconomic status.

Adolescents from loving, supportive homes can experience mental health difficulties, just as those from homes where there may be caregivers who need support to maintain an optimum environment for healthy adolescent development. Caregivers can play an essential role in helping adolescents to overcome any problems they experience, and this is true regardless of the family's economic situation.

Dispelling these myths is a crucial step towards reducing stigma, promoting understanding, and encouraging individuals to seek help when needed. Remember, mental illnesses are conditions like any other, deserving of understanding, empathy, and appropriate care.


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

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

[3]: https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/22295-mental-health-disorders

[4]: https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/mental-health-causes-mental-illness

[5]: https://www.samhsa.gov/mental-health/myths-and-facts

[6]: https://www.unicef.org/parenting/health/busted-7-myths-about-mental-health

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

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

Don't Wait. Healing is a Phone Call Away.

Arista Recovery is here to help. We are committed to healing everyone who enters our doors from the inside out. No matter what stage our guests enter treatment, we strive to meet them right where they are.

Get Help Now