The phrase mental illness is often bandied around, but we need to know exactly what this means. To begin with, mental illness is the absence of mental health. The World Health Organization defines mental health as: “a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her [their] own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his [their] community.”

The American Psychiatric Association defines mental illnesses as:

“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.”

Likewise, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders Fifth Edition (DSM-5, 2013), which is the bible on mental health problems, states:

“A mental disorder is a syndrome characterized by clinically significant disturbance in an individual’s cognition, emotional regulation, or behavior that reflects a dysfunction in  the psychological, biological, or developmental processes underlying mental functioning. Mental disorders are usually associated with significant distress or disability in social, occupational, or other importance activities” (p. 20).

Mental illnesses are very prevalent today and they can go from a mild state of anxiety to more severe condition such as schizophrenia and dissociative identity disorder (formerly multiple personality disorder). Various studies including from the NIMH and SAMSHA reveal the following statistics:

  • Approximately 1 in 5 U.S adults (44 million) experience a mental illness in any given year
  • 1 in 24 has a serious mental illness
  • 1 in 12 has a substance use disorder (drugs/alcohol).

There is still a lot of stigma regarding mental illness. However, it is an illness just like any other illness where there are problems associated with life functioning. And like physical health issues such as diabetes or heart disease, there is treatment available including medication and counseling.

Symptoms Associated With A Mental Illness(es)

  • Significant change in mood/emotions (going from happy to depressed; becoming very fearful or paranoid, or becoming angry over little things)
  • Unable to continue to attend school or work due to feeling overwhelmed or not remembering what to do or how to do it
  • Feeling depressed, hopeless/helpless or feeling suicidal or homicidal
  • Extreme energy with poor sleep and oftentimes, becoming compulsive in shopping or sex
  • Having no joy in doings thing previously enjoyed (anhedonia)
  • Isolation
  • Having an extreme startle response
  • Psychic numbing – not feeling anything
  • Feeling everyone else in the world is wrong and that only your thoughts and feelings are important
  • Not having a sense of a moral compass or compassion
  • Problematic behaviors (often impulsive) such as drinking and drugging or cutting or burning self
  • Hearing or seeing things that other people don’t hear and see (hallucinations) that are not associated with a spiritual process or a cultural norm
  • Feeling people are out to get you
  • Having delusions such as believing you’re Jesus Christ or that you have superpowers
  • Having ongoing thoughts (“monkey-mind” where you can’t let go of the thought and it is like a cassette tape going around in your mind) or behaviors that don’t go away and which you must complete ritualistic behaviors to ease your tension (such as counting the tiles in the ceiling or the steps it takes you to walk to work)
  • Poor sleep or too much sleep
  • Poor eating or overeating
  • Having problems with other relationships such as a parent or spouse with no known reason
  • Problems accepting responsibility for yourself and blaming others.

Warning Signs Of Mental Illness

While there are many warning signs of a mental illness, it takes a few of these symptoms to actually be diagnosed with a mental illness. If you feel you or a loved one have a number of these symptoms, then talk to your parents, spouse, or other family members; a trusted physician; a teacher or school counselor; religious or spiritual mentor; or other supports. Also, set an appointment with a social worker, therapist, or counselor or at a mental health center that can provide you with needed services. And do not be overwhelmed by stigma; as a person with a mental illness, you are so much more than being defined as mentally ill. Diagnoses are just professionals’ ways of working with your particular problem, just as a diagnosis of diabetes is a way of working with that illness.

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Carol Anderson
Carol Anderson, D.Min., ACSW, LMSW, is a licensed clinical social worker with over 25 years of experience in the fields of mental health, addictions, and co-occurring disorders. Her other specialties include grief and trauma, women’s issues, chronic pain management, holistic healing, GLBTQ concerns, and spirituality and transpersonal psychology. Dr. Anderson has been educated and trained in the fields of education, social work, and spirituality, and she holds a Doctor of Ministry degree (non-denominational/interfaith) specializing in spirituality.

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