May is a great month! Spring is in full bloom (which isn’t entirely GOOD news for those of us with allergies), and it’s a time to celebrate our very special Moms. There’s another tradition we observe in May. It’s the time we become more aware of mental health and mental illness. Mental illness is a huge issue, and there’s still a lot of misinformation about it in our popular culture.
The American Psychiatric Association defines mental illness as “any health condition involving changes in thinking, emotion or behavior (or a combination of these). Mental illness is associated with distress and/or problems functioning in social, work or family activities.” Still, the majority of people with mental illness continue to function in their daily lives despite their illness.
Almost everyone is touched in some way by mental illness. It affects one in five adults, nearly 47 million Americans. And of those, 11 million are living with serious mental illness, one that limits major life activities. Serious mental illnesses include disorders such as major depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
In addition, 14.8 million people in the US have an alcohol use disorder and 8.1 million have an illegal drug disorder. Further, 2 million Americans have an opioid disorder, which includes prescription pain reliever and/or heroin abuse.
Why are so many people affected by mental illness? The exact cause of mental illness is unknown, but researchers have uncovered a few factors that may contribute to its development. One is genetics. Many mental illnesses run in families, suggesting people inherit at least a susceptibility to developing a particular illness.
An imbalance of brain chemicals called neurotransmitters has been linked to some types of mental illness as well. These chemicals help your brain cells communicate with each other. If they can’t communicate properly because the chemicals are out of whack, clear messages can’t get through the brain.
Another contributing factor is psychological trauma such as severe physical, emotional or sexual abuse endured as a child, witnessing a traumatic event or experiencing significant loss. Environmental factors can also contribute. These include the death of someone close to you, a divorce or a big change in your life, such as a new job. These factors often foster substance abuse.
Whatever the cause, mental illness is just that, an ILLNESS, not a weakness in your character.
Mental illness runs the gamut, from mild depression to psychotic schizophrenia. Each illness has its own set of symptoms, but I’m giving you a few general signs and symptoms so you know what to watch out for, in yourself and others. These are some of the common signs and symptoms of mental illness:
• Sleep or appetite changes
• Mood changes
• Withdrawal and loss of interest in activities
• Problems thinking
• Decrease in functioning
• Illogical thinking
• Unusual behavior
If you notice these symptoms and are willing to get help, consult a qualified mental health professional. These providers understand mental illness and can recommend the best course of treatment for you. If you ever feel like hurting yourself or others, call your local crisis hotline or 911.
There is no medical test for diagnosing mental illness, but your doctor may use tests to rule out a medical reason for your symptoms. To make a diagnosis, your mental health professional will follow the guidelines outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), published by the American Psychiatric Association.
The DSM-5 lists criteria including feelings, symptoms and behaviors over a period of time that you must meet in order to be officially diagnosed with a mental illness. The mental health professional gleans this information through interviews with you about your symptom history.
Many people with mental illness achieve strength and recovery through participating in individual or group treatment. The specific treatment chosen for you is based on the type of mental illness you have and the severity of your symptoms.
The most common methods of treatment are medication and psychotherapy, or a combination of both. Other options that may be considered including hospitalization, day treatment, group therapy and specific therapy such as cognitive behavioral therapy.
Medications don’t cure mental illness but they can control symptoms, and your doctor may use one or more types of medication to treat you. Common psychiatric medications for treating mental illness include antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications, mood-stabilizing medications and anti-psychotic medications.
Psychotherapy, or talk therapy, aims to help you identify and change troubling emotions, thoughts and behaviors. It provides a supportive environment that allows you to talk openly about your feelings, as well as your experiences and relationships, which may be contributing factors to your condition.
In most cases, treatment is effective, but you’ve got to be compliant. If you’re prescribed medication, take it. If it causes intolerable side effects, tell your doctor. Maybe you can try another drug. Psychotherapy helps more than you might think, but you’ve got to participate. Treatment may take time to work, but if you comply, you’ll likely feel better and function fully.