Mental health disorders widely affect people throughout the United States. Like addiction, the existence of mental health disorders only began to be recognized as recently as the 20th century. These conditions significantly impair people’s quality of life, damaging their emotional and well as physical health, causing interpersonal difficulties, legal problems, and even financial insecurity. Unfortunately, there are many misconceptions and stigmas surrounding mental health conditions. As a result, too few people seek help, and the number of people suffering from mental illness is likely far higher than statistics indicate.
The World Health Organization defines a mental health disorder as any condition that causes problems with a person’s thoughts, emotions, or interpersonal relationships. This broad definition encompasses a broad range of problems. The DSM-5, the book that psychiatrists use to diagnose people with mental health disorders, lists approximately 297 different conditions. It is possible to be diagnosed with one of these mental health disorders for a period of time, whereas some people suffer from one or more for their whole lives. It is important to understand that there is a lot of variety in terms of how people think and behave. Being “abnormal” does not mean one suffers from a mental illness. The criteria for diagnosing someone with a mental health disorder usually involves a number of ways that a condition has negatively affected their life and impaired their ability to function.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, approximately 1 in every 5 adults in the United States experiences mental illness each year. That makes it far more common than influenza. Unfortunately, the majority of people suffering from mental illness do not get treatment. This is partly a result of a scarcity of care resources available to certain populations. Unfortunately, it is also due to the stigma surrounding mental illness. Many people, even people suffering acutely from mental illness, mistakenly believe that mental illness is something they need to simply get over. While this kind of stoicism may work well for superheroes in the movies, in real life this attitude is more likely to exacerbate problems. Mental illness isn’t an individual problem. It affects more than the person who has it — friends, family, coworkers, and even neighbors are likely to be impacted by someone they know with mental illness. Likewise, treating mental illness is not a solitary pursuit. The first step in getting relief from a mental health condition is seeking help from a treatment program or resource center.
While everyone experiences sadness at times from one degree to another, psychiatrists diagnose people with major depression when their feelings of despair impair their ability to function. Episodes of depression can last for a few weeks to many years and can make it difficult to interact, practice healthy self-care, and fulfill essential tasks. Depression has many possible causes, from genetic factors to traumatizing life events. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a form of depression that occurs in winter due to a lack of sunlight, and Postpartum Depression occurs in new mothers due to hormone imbalances. Depression can also be caused by lifestyle choices such as regular substance abuse. While everyone experiences mental illness differently, in the case of depression mental health difficulties can cause a range of symptoms such as:
When feelings of nervousness and anxiety are persistent and impair a person’s thinking, behavior, and ability to function, they might be suffering from an anxiety disorder. There are many types of anxiety disorders. Phobias, for instance, are abnormally severe and irrational fears about a specific object, such as heights or the sight of blood. Another common mental health concern is panic disorder. Individuals suffering from panic disorder experience brief bursts of extreme helpless anxiety, referred to as panic attacks, which can be so severe that they can be mistaken for heart attacks. However, generalized anxiety disorder is the most common type of anxiety disorder, with symptoms that include:
Social anxiety disorder is another common type of anxiety disorder. A person with social anxiety disorder is more than a mere introvert. Rather, these individuals can be said to suffer from a debilitating phobia of other people and social contact. It is common for people suffering from this condition to go to great lengths to avoid social situations. Many find it is difficult to function normally during social events or even with the knowledge that a social interaction might occur in the near future. Some cases are so extreme that an individual may avoid leaving the house entirely. Many people with this condition recognize that their fears are baseless but are unable to control them. Social anxiety disorder can present serious impediments toward a person’s goals, preventing them from working or having friends. To circumvent these problems, it is common for people with this condition to turn to short-term solutions that provide temporary relief, such as substance abuse.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder is a debilitating condition that causes sufferers to think certain thoughts obsessively and compulsively complete repetitive tasks and behaviors. These uncontrollable ruminations and behavior patterns can be profoundly disruptive and make it nearly impossible to live normally. Types of OCD include:
People with eating disorders have irregular and physically unsafe eating patterns, often as a result of body dysmorphia. Body dysmorphia occurs when a person is unable to see their body objectively, such as perceiving it as obese when it is in fact emaciated. People with anorexia nervosa, a common eating disorder, restrict calories to lose weight. It is common for them to exercise obsessively and purge themselves by taking laxatives or vomiting as well. The most common eating disorder in the United States, however, is binge eating disorder, during which a person uncontrollably eats an enormous amount of food in a short period of time. People with bulimia nervosa engage in bouts of binge eating, and follow up their binges with purges, during which they force themselves to vomit. Eating disorders can cause extreme health problems and become life-threatening.
Individuals who suffer from bipolar disorder experience extremes on both ends of the spectrum, alternating between episodes of mania and depression. However, the destabilizing effects of bipolar disorder are not limited to these episodes. People with bipolar disorder experience disturbances in their mood, cognition, sleep, and even memory. The condition can also drive people to dangerous heights of despair. Research shows that 25%-50% of people with bipolar disorder attempt suicide at least once in their lives. It also increases their risks of developing other mental health problems, such as substance use disorder.
Schizophrenia is a condition that is little-understood despite its ubiquity in movies and television. Schizophrenics suffer from recurring psychosis, which is a variety of mental illness that causes problems with emotions, language, cognition, behavior, and perception. People with schizophrenia may experience hallucinations that are auditory or visual in nature. Many otherwise rational people may have persistent delusions as well. The causes of this disorder are still relatively unknown, though it does run in families. 20 million people all over the world experience the debilitating effects of schizophrenia.
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is commonly diagnosed among children, but it is also prevalent among adults, with approximately 5% of adults in the United States meeting conditions for the diagnosis. The condition is characterized by difficulties concentrating, hyperactivity, difficulty managing time, and problems completing and beginning tasks. Someone with ADHD might find it very difficult to sit still and focus. As such, this disorder can pose significant problems when it comes to meeting academic and career goals.
Borderline personality disorder, which is linked to early traumatic experiences, is associated with problems with emotional regulation and relating with others. People with borderline personality disorder often report having an unstable personal identity and feelings of emptiness. Many suffer from a phobia of being abandoned and as a result foster unstable and codependent relationships with other people. Extreme rage, impulsivity, and suicidal ideation are common among people with borderline personality disorder. While this mental health condition is notoriously misdiagnosed, people who suffer from it suffer greatly in their interpersonal relationships until treated by a trained clinician.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is another type of common anxiety disorder, especially common among war veterans and victims of sexual assault. PTSD can occur when someone experiences or witnesses a particularly traumatic event. The result can be long term feelings of depression, anxiety, and dissociation. Other symptoms include intrusive thoughts, a strong aversion to anything that could trigger the memory of a traumatic event, cognitive problems, and even amnesia. Post-traumatic stress disorder is strongly associated with substance abuse, since alcohol and drugs can provide temporary relief for some of the recurring suffering that individuals with PTSD experience. Proper treatment involves behavioral therapies such as eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), exposure therapy, or cognitive-behavioral therapy. Medications such as SSRIs, while not cures, can also help individuals respond better to therapeutic modalities.
The causes of mental illness vary considerably from person to person. In most cases, a mental illness has multiple overlapping causes. Psychological, biological, and environmental factors all play considerable roles in the development of mental health conditions. Research has indicated that many mental health disorders run in families and have a genetic basis. Other biological causes include chemical or hormonal imbalances in the brain, developmental abnormalities, and brain injuries. However, most mental illnesses are brought on by a variety of causes and triggers. These include:
The last of these factors, substance abuse, is associated with a mental health condition in its own right, known as substance use disorder. People with substance use disorder are very prone to developing other mental health issues. Substance abuse can trigger episodes of depression and anxiety. Behavior surrounding addiction can also some of the conditions outlined above that increase the likelihood of mental health problems, such as poverty and traumatic life events. As a result, people who suffer from substance use disorder are approximately twice as likely to develop mental illnesses.
It goes both ways. Suffering from a mental illness makes people twice as likely to engage in dangerous patterns of substance abuse. This is in part due to the temporary relief that drugs and alcohol provide. When mentally ill individuals use drugs and alcohol for short-lived relief of their symptoms, they are engaging in what addiction specialists refer to as “self-medicating.” This dangerous practice of drinking or taking drugs to alleviate the symptoms of an untreated mental health disorder can result in addiction, overdose, and death. It is also highly likely to worsen the symptoms of mental illness over time.
People suffering from substance use disorder and one or more additional mental health conditions are referred to as “dual diagnosis,” or “comorbid.” Comorbidity is difficult to treat. Because mental illness can trigger drug use and vice versa, it is ineffective to treat one problem while ignoring the other. Dual diagnosis individuals should seek the help of a drug and alcohol treatment program that has the resources to deal with mental health disorders. A partial hospitalization program, or PHP, is well-suited to dual diagnosis individuals, since it offers psychiatric and medical support along with resources for people suffering from addiction. At such a facility, people can build a foundation for long term sobriety and decrease the likelihood of relapse by responsibly treating their mental illnesses.
Treatment for mental health problems varies considerably depending on the illness being treated and the unique individual needs of the patient. Recommended mental health solutions and plans usually include some form of psychiatric treatment. Psychiatrists can help individuals develop a holistic mental health treatment plan. Elements of these plans can include medications to alleviate some of the more severe symptoms of the disorder. Psychotherapeutic counseling, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, also often plays an important role. Counseling can help individuals develop coping strategies to change their thinking and behavior patterns. These resources are widely available in outpatient mental health programs.
For people whose mental illnesses are more severe, or for dual diagnosis individuals whose require treatment for multiple conditions, a residential mental health treatment facility is often a good idea. At residential treatment programs, which include partial hospitalization programs, patients live at their treatment facility and have access to 24/7 care. With psychiatric, medical, and counseling services at their disposal, patients should begin to make progress in treating their mental health issues. Many facilities, even some outpatient facilities like intensive outpatient programs (IOP programs), also offer patients resources for rebuilding their lives, such as skills training workshops for job-seekers. Residential programs and IOPs also provide drug abuse treatment for comorbid patients.
Treating a mental health disorder can feel like a challenge. Many mental illnesses require a degree of care throughout a person’s life and cannot be permanently cured. Stigma and lack of resources are also major impediments to getting treatment. However, people who seek help for their mental illnesses usually find that their quality of life dramatically improves. It is possible to function normally, have relationships, and hold down a job if your mental health disorder is treated properly. It is possible to be happy. If the condition is being properly treated, it is even possible to be proud of your differences.