What is Mental Illness?

 

WHAT IS MENTAL ILLNESS?


"We have to think about ‘mental illnesses’ as disorders of the way the brain functions. They’re not a matter a choice for the patients. These are diseases that have taken them on. Mental illness is very personal; it is a challenge to diagnose; it is a challenge to find good practitioners; it is a challenge to pay for; it is a challenge to recover. But we are now in a world where we know there are treatments that work. People DO recover.”

- Bennett Leventhal, MD, Director, Institute for Juvenile Research, University of Illinois at Chicago



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The good news about mental illness is that recovery is possible.


According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, mental illness is a medical condition that disrupts a person's thinking, feeling, mood, ability to relate to others and daily functioning. Just as diabetes is a disorder of the pancreas, mental illnesses are medical conditions that often result in a diminished capacity for coping with ordinary demands of life.

Mental illnesses can affect anyone, regardless of their age, race, religion or income. Mental illnesses are not the result of personal weakness, lack of character or poor upbringing; they are not anyone’s fault. Mental illnesses are treatable. Most people diagnosed with a serious mental illness can experience relief from their symptoms by actively participating in an individual treatment plan.


Mental illness consists of a number of different diseases, just like stomach illnesses or heart illnesses. Serious mental illnesses include major depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), panic disorder, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and borderline personality disorder.


The following are some of the most common mental illnesses Access Hospital witnesses:



  • Depression has been defined by the World Health Organization as the greatest cause of disability of any medical disease. This kind of depression feels completely out of your control and without cause; you don’t know why you’re depressed, you don’t know why you can’t get up in the morning, you don’t know why you can’t feel good about your family and your job.
  • Symptoms may include some combination of the following: depressed mood (sadness), poor concentration, insomnia, fatigue, appetite disturbances, excessive guilt and thoughts of suicide.
  • Left untreated, depression can lead to serious impairment in daily functioning and even suicide, which is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S.
  • Depression is treatable in most people.

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Anxiety disorders are a group of related conditions​- ​each with unique symptoms. However, all anxiety disorders have one thing in common: persistent, excessive fear or worry in situations that are not threatening. People ​typically​ experience one or more of the following symptoms​, however because of the range of anxiety disorders, these lists are in no way meant to be all-encompassing​:

Emotional symptoms:

  • Feelings of apprehension or dread
  • Feeling tense and jumpy
  • Restlessness or irritability
  • Anticipating the worst and being watchful for signs of danger

Physical symptoms:

  • Pounding or racing heart and shortness of breath
  • Upset stomach
  • Sweating, tremors and twitches
  • Headaches, fatigue and insomnia
  • Upset stomach, frequent urination or diarrhea

​There are many ​different ​kinds of ​anxiety disorders and they all​ have various symptoms​, with varying degrees of intensity​. This means that each type of anxiety disorder has its own treatment plan. The most common anxiety disorders include:​ ​

  • Panic Disorder
  • Social Anxiety Disorder
  • Phobias
  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
  • In the most basic sense panic disorder causes you to have episodes of panic, more commonly known as panic attacks. A panic attack is an uncontrollable and terrifying response to ordinary, nonthreatening situations. People who experience recurrent panic attacks, have persistent anxiety or fear regarding their panic attacks and change their behavior in an attempt to avoid further panic attacks may have panic disorder.
  • Individuals with panic disorder are likely to experience some combination of the following symptoms during a panic attack: sweating, hot or cold flashes, choking or smothering sensations, racing heart, labored breathing, trembling, chest pains, faintness, numbness, nausea or disorientation. They may feel like they are dying, losing control or losing their mind.
  • Panic attacks typically last about five to 10 minutes but can vary from only a few minutes to almost an hour in some cases. During the attack, the physical and emotional symptoms increase quickly in a wave-like fashion and then slowly subside. A person may feel anxious and jittery for many hours after experiencing a panic attack.
  • When people experience or witness a traumatic event such as abuse, a natural disaster, or extreme violence, it is normal to be distressed and to feel “on edge” for some time after this experience. Some people who experience traumatic events have severe symptoms such as nightmares, flashbacks, being very easily startled or scared, or feeling numb/angry/irritable/distracted. Sometimes these symptoms last for weeks or even months after the event and are so severe that they make it difficult for a person to work, have loving relationships, or “return to normal.” This is when a person may be suffering from PTSD.
  • Many people with PTSD have difficulty discussing their symptoms because they may be too embarrassed or scared to recall their trauma. This is common in victims of sexual abuse and in combat veterans.
  • Bipolar disorder is a chronic illness with recurring episodes of mania and depression that can last from one day to months. This mental illness causes unusual and dramatic shifts in mood, energy and the ability to think clearly. Cycles of high (manic) and low (depressive) moods may follow an irregular pattern that differs from the typical ups and downs experienced by most people. The symptoms of bipolar disorder can have a negative impact on a person’s life. Damaged relationships or a decline in job or school performance are potential effects, but positive outcomes are possible.
  • Two main features characterize people who live with bipolar disorder: intensity and oscillation (ups and downs). People living with bipolar disorder often experience two intense emotional states. These two states are known as mania and depression. A manic state can be identified by feelings of extreme irritability and/or euphoria, along with several other symptoms during the same week such as agitation, surges of energy, reduced need for sleep, talkativeness, pleasure-seeking and increased risk-taking behavior. On the other side, when an individual experiences symptoms of depression they feel extremely sad, hopeless and loss of energy. Not everyone’s symptoms are the same and the severity of mania and depression can vary.
  • More than 10 million Americans have bipolar disorder. Because of its irregular patterns, bipolar disorder is often hard to diagnose. Although the illness can occur at any point in life, more than one-half of all cases begin between ages 15-25. Bipolar disorder affects men and women equally.
  • Schizophrenia may be the most stigmatized mental illness.
  • Schizophrenia is a serious mental illness that affects 2.4 million American adults over the age of 18. Although it affects men and women with equal frequency, schizophrenia most often appears in men in their late teens or early twenties, while it appears in women in their late twenties or early thirties. Finding the causes for schizophrenia proves to be difficult as the cause and course of the illness is unique for each person.
  • Psychosis (psyche = mind, osis = illness) is defined as the experience of loss of contact with reality and usually involves hallucinations and delusions. Psychosis is a common symptom of schizophrenia
  • Having ideas that are bizarre, and probably most common, hearing things that interfere with a person's ability to think clearly, manage emotions, make decisions and relate to others, exist as symptoms as schizophrenia and when not treated can impact an individual’s ability to function to their potential.

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  • Schizoaffective disorder is a serious mental illness that affects about 1 in 100 people. Schizoaffective disorder as a diagnostic entity has features that resemble both schizophrenia and also serious mood (affective) symptoms. Many of the strategies used to treat both schizophrenia and affective conditions can be employed for this condition.  These include antipsychotic and mood stabilizing medications, family involvement, psychosocial strategies, self-care peer support, psychotherapy and integrated care for co-occurring substance abuse (when appropriate). 
  • A person who has schizoaffective disorder will experience delusions, hallucinations, other symptoms that are characteristic of schizophrenia and significant disturbances in their mood (e.g., affective symptoms). According to the DSM-IV-TR, people who experience more than two weeks of psychotic symptoms in the absence of severe mood disturbances—and then have symptoms of either depression or bipolar disorder—may have schizoaffective disorder. Schizoaffective disorder is thought to be between the bipolar and schizophrenia diagnoses as it has features of both.
  • Depressive symptoms associated with schizoaffective disorder can include—but are not limited to—hopelessness, helplessness, guilt, worthlessness, disrupted appetite, disturbed sleep, inability to concentrate, and depressed mood (with or without suicidal thoughts).  Manic (bipolar) symptoms associated with schizoaffective disorder can include increased energy, decreased sleep (or decreased need for sleep), distractibility, fast (“pressured”) speech, and increased impulsive behaviors (e.g., sexual activities, drug and alcohol abuse, gambling or spending large amounts of money).

When people experience or witness a traumatic event such as abuse, a natural disaster, or extreme violence, it is normal to be distressed and to feel “on edge” for some time after this experience. Some people who experience traumatic events have severe symptoms such as nightmares, flashbacks, being very easily startled or scared, or feeling numb/angry/irritable/distracted. Sometimes these symptoms last for weeks or even months after the event and are so severe that they make it difficult for a person to work, have loving relationships, or “return to normal.” This is when a person may be suffering from PTSD. Many people with PTSD have difficulty discussing their symptoms because they may be too embarrassed or scared to recall their trauma. This is common in victims of sexual abuse and in combat veterans.

  • Obsessions

    are characterized by intrusive, irrational thoughts—unwanted ideas or impulses that repeatedly appear in a person's mind. Again and again, the person experiences disturbing thoughts, such as "My hands must be contaminated; I need to wash them"; "I may have left the gas stove on; I need to go check it fast"; "I am going to injure my child by accident; I need to be very careful or else something bad will happen." On one level, the person experiencing these thoughts knows their obsessions are irrational. But on another level, he or she fears these thoughts might be true. Trying to avoid such thoughts creates great anxiety, distress and dysfunction.
  • Compulsions

    are repetitive rituals such as hand washing, counting, checking, hoarding or arranging. An individual repeats these actions many times throughout the day and performing these actions releases anxiety, but only momentarily. People with OCD feel they must perform these compulsive rituals or something bad will happen to them or their loved ones.
  • Most people at one time or another experience obsessive thoughts or compulsive behaviors. Obsessive-compulsive disorder occurs when an individual experiences obsessions and compulsions for more than an hour each day, in a way that interferes with his or her life. The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that more than 2 percent of the U.S. population, or nearly one out of every 40 people, will be diagnosed with OCD at some point in their lives. The disorder is two to three times more common than schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
  • OCD is often described as "a disease of doubt." Individuals living with OCD experience "pathological doubt" because they are unable to distinguish between what is possible, what is probable and what is unlikely to happen.