What is Mental Illness?


When you hear about mental illness, the images that oftentimes come to mind are gun violence and homelessness. We want to believe that mental health issues are rare and that we are beyond its effects, but the truth is, it’s far more common that we care to admit. In the US:

  • 1 in 5 adults (43.8 million, or 18.5%) experiences mental illness in any given year.
  • 1 in 5 youth aged 13–18 (21.4%) experiences a severe mental disorder at some point during their life. For children aged 8–15, the estimate is 13%.
  • 18.1% of adults experienced an anxiety disorder such as post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and specific phobias.
  • 1.1% of adults live with schizophrenia.
  • 2.6% of adults live with bipolar disorder.
  • 6.9% of adults (16 million) had at least one major depressive episode in the past year.

But even though 50% of all chronic mental illnesses begin between the ages of 14 and 24, there are long delays to getting effective treatment. Why? Most people don’t understand what mental illness is, they don’t know what to look for, or they allow the stigma that often accompanies such a diagnosis to stop them from getting help. We’ll talk about stigma at another time, but right now, I want to focus on what mental illness is.

Mental illness is a disease that causes mild to severe disturbances in thought and/or behavior, resulting in an inability to cope with life’s ordinary demands and routines. There are more than 200 classified forms of mental illness. Some of the more common disorders are depression, bipolar disorder, dementia, schizophrenia and anxiety disorders.  Symptoms may include changes in mood, personality, personal habits and/or social withdrawal, with causes that stem from a reaction to environmental stresses, genetic factors, biochemical imbalances, or a combination of these. It is especially important to pay attention to sudden changes in thoughts and behaviors. Also keep in mind that the onset of several of the symptoms below, and not just any one change, indicates a problem that should be assessed.


In Adults, Young Adults and Adolescents:

  • Confused thinking
  • Prolonged depression (sadness or irritability)
  • Feelings of extreme highs and lows
  • Excessive fears, worries and anxieties
  • Social withdrawal
  • Dramatic changes in eating or sleeping habits
  • Strong feelings of anger
  • Strange thoughts (delusions)
  • Seeing or hearing things that aren’t there (hallucinations)
  • Growing inability to cope with daily problems and activities
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Numerous unexplained physical ailments
  • Substance use

In Older Children and Pre-Adolescents:

  • Substance use
  • Inability to cope with problems and daily activities
  • Changes in sleeping and/or eating habits
  • Excessive complaints of physical ailments
  • Changes in ability to manage responsibilities – at home and/or at school
  • Defiance of authority, truancy, theft, and/or vandalism
  • Intense fear
  • Prolonged negative mood, often accompanied by poor appetite or thoughts of death
  • Frequent outbursts of anger

In Younger Children:

  • Changes in school performance
  • Poor grades despite strong efforts
  • Changes in sleeping and/or eating habits
  • Excessive worry or anxiety (i.e. refusing to go to bed or school)
  • Hyperactivity
  • Persistent nightmares
  • Persistent disobedience or aggression
  • Frequent temper tantrums

You can’t fix what you don’t know is wrong and while a diagnosis like this is scary, it’s the first step to healing. There is hope. With proper care and treatment many individuals learn to cope or recover from a mental illness or emotional disorder.

Read more about mental illness at the following websites (where I pulled the above information):

If you or someone you know is struggling with depression or mental stress, text ‘Start’ to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741. It’s free, confidential; and someone is available to talk to you 24/7. You can visit their website www.crisistextline.org for more information. You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255). Or you can contact the National Alliance on Mental Illness (800-950-6264) for support and local referrals. You can also go to Mental Health America to find a support group in your area.

#MentalHealthAwarenessMonth #MentalHealth #MentalWellness #YouAreNotAlone




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