What Is Mental Illness?

Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of. It is a medical problem, just like heart disease or diabetes.

Mental illnesses are health conditions involving changes in thinking, emotion or behavior (or a combination of these). Mental illnesses are associated with distress and/or problems functioning in social, work or family activities.

Mental illness is common. In a given year:

  • Nearly one in five (19%) U.S. adults experience some form of mental illness.
  • One in 24 (4.1% has a serious mental illness.
  • One in 12 (8.5%) has a substance use disorder.

Mental illness is treatable. The vast majority of individuals with mental illness continue to function in their daily lives.

About Mental Health

Mental Health...

involves effective functioning in daily activities resulting in

  • Productive activities (work, school, caregiving).
  • Healthy relationships.
  • Ability to adapt to change and cope with adversity.

Mental Illness...

refers collectively to all diagnosable mental disorders — health conditions involving

  • Significant changes in thinking, emotion and/or behavior.
  • Distress and/or problems functioning in social, work or family activities.

Mental health is the foundation for thinking, communication, learning, resilience and self-esteem. Mental health is also key to relationships, personal and emotional well-being and contributing to community or society.

Many people who have a mental illness do not want to talk about it. But mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of! It is a medical condition, just like heart disease or diabetes. And mental health conditions are treatable. We are continually expanding our understanding of how the human brain works, and treatments are available to help people successfully manage mental health conditions.

Mental illness does not discriminate; it can affect anyone regardless of your age, gender, income, social status, race/ethnicity, religion/spirituality, sexual orientation, background or other aspect of cultural identity. While mental illness can occur at any age, three-fourths of all mental illness begins by age 24.

Mental illnesses take many forms. Some are fairly mild and only interfere in limited ways with daily life, such as certain phobias (abnormal fears). Other mental health conditions are so severe that a person may need care in a hospital.

Sources

National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration (SAMSHA). Serious mental illness is a mental, behavioral or emotional disorder (excluding developmental and substance use disorders) resulting in serious functional impairment, which substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities. Examples of serious mental illness include major depressive disorder, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

Physician Review By:

Ranna Parekh, M.D., M.P.H.
November 2015

Diagnosis

Mental health conditions are treatable and improvement is possible. Many people with mental health conditions return to full functioning.

It is not always clear when a problem with mood or thinking has become serious enough to be a mental health concern. Sometimes, for example, a depressed mood is normal, such as when a person experiences the loss of a loved one. But if that depressed mood continues to cause distress or gets in the way of normal functioning, the person may benefit from professional care.

Some mental illnesses can be related to or mimic a medical condition. Therefore a mental health diagnosis typically involves a full evaluation including a physical exam. This may include blood work and/or neurological tests.

People of diverse cultures and backgrounds may express mental health conditions differently. For example, some are more likely to come to a health care professional with complaints of physical symptoms that are caused by a mental health condition. Some cultures view and describe mental health conditions in different ways from most doctors in the United States.

Sources

National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration (SAMSHA). Serious mental illness is a mental, behavioral or emotional disorder (excluding developmental and substance use disorders) resulting in serious functional impairment, which substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities. Examples of serious mental illness include major depressive disorder, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

Physician Review By:

Ranna Parekh, M.D., M.P.H.
November 2015

Treatment & Self-help

The diagnosis of a mental disorder is not the same as a need for treatment. Need for treatment takes into consideration how severe the symptoms are, how much symptoms cause distress and affect daily living, the risks and benefits of available treatments and other factors (for example, psychiatric symptoms complicating other illness).

Mental health treatment is based upon an individualized plan developed collaboratively with a mental health clinician and an individual (and family members if the individual desires). It may include psychotherapy (talk therapy), medication or other treatments. Often a combination of therapy and medication is most effective. Complementary and alternative therapies are also increasingly being used.

Self-help and support can be very important to an individual’s coping, recovery and wellbeing. A comprehensive treatment plan may also include individual actions (for example, lifestyle changes, support groups or exercise) that enhance recovery and well-being.

Primary care clinicians, psychiatrists and other mental health clinicians help individuals and families understand mental illnesses and what they can do to control or cope with symptoms in order to improve health, wellness and function.

Sources

National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration (SAMSHA). Serious mental illness is a mental, behavioral or emotional disorder (excluding developmental and substance use disorders) resulting in serious functional impairment, which substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities. Examples of serious mental illness include major depressive disorder, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

Physician Review By:

Ranna Parekh, M.D., M.P.H.
November 2015