Mental Illness

Mental Illness: What is mental illness?


Mental illness is an illness that affects or is manifested in a person’s brain. It may impact on the way a person thinks, behaves, and interacts with other people.

The term “mental illness” actually encompasses numerous psychiatric disorders, and just like illnesses that affect other parts of the body, they can vary in severity. Many people suffering from mental illness may not look as though they are ill or that something is wrong, while others may appear to be confused, agitated, or withdrawn.

It is a myth that mental illness is a weakness or defect in character and that sufferers can get better simply by “pulling themselves up by their bootstraps.” Mental illnesses are real illnesses–as real as heart disease and cancer–and they require and respond well to treatment.

The term “mental illness” is an unfortunate one because it implies a distinction between “mental” disorders and “physical” disorders. Research shows that there is much “physical” in “mental” disorders and vice-versa. For example, the brain chemistry of a person with major depression is different from that of a nondepressed person, and medication can be used (often in combination with psychotherapy) to bring the brain chemistry back to normal. Similarly, a person who is suffering from hardening of the arteries in the brain–which reduces the flow of blood and thus oxygen in the brain–may experience such “mental” symptoms as confusion and forgetfulness.

In the past 20 years especially, psychiatric research has made great strides in the precise diagnosis and successful treatment of many mental illnesses. Where once mentally ill people were warehoused in public institutions because they were disruptive or feared to be harmful to themselves or others, today most people who suffer from a mental illness–including those that can be extremely debilitating, such as schizophrenia –can be treated effectively and lead full lives.

Recognized mental illnesses are described and categorized in the book Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition. This book is compiled by the American Psychiatric Association and updated periodically. It can be purchased through the American Psychiatric Association in Washington DC.

Some of the more commonly known psychiatric disorders are depression; manic depression (also known as bipolar disorder); anxiety disorders, including specific phobias (such as fear of heights), social phobia, panic disorder, agoraphobia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder; schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders, such as delusional disorder; substance abuse and disorders related to substance abuse; delirium; dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease; eating disorders, such as bulimia and anorexia; sleep disorders; attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder; learning disorders; sexual disorders; dissociative disorders, such as multiple personality disorder; and personality disorders, such as borderline personality disorder and antisocial personality disorder.

If you would like to receive additional literature about psychiatric illnesses, you may call the Texas Society of Psychiatric Physicians and order the following pamphlets:

  • Mental Illnesses…An Overview
  • Depression
  • Manic-Depressive Disorder
  • Schizophrenia
  • Obsessive-compulsive Disorder
  • Panic Disorder
  • Phobias
  • Posttraumatic Stress Disorder
  • Mental Health of the Elderly
  • Substance Abuse
  • Teen Suicide
  • Childhood Disorders
  • Psychiatric Medications
  • Eating Disorders
  • Alzheimer’s Disease
  • Coping with HIV and AIDS

Mental Illness: What are the warning signs?

In an adult:

A person with one or more of the following symptoms should be evaluated by a psychiatrist or other physician as soon as possible:

  • Marked personality change.
  • Inability to cope with problems and daily activities.
  • Strange or grandiose ideas.
  • Excessive anxieties.
  • Prolonged depression and apathy.
  • Marked changes in eating or sleeping patterns.
  • Extreme highs and lows.
  • Abuse of alcohol or drugs.
  • Excessive anger, hostility, or violent behavior.

A person who is thinking or talking about suicide or homicide should seek help immediately.

In a child:

Having only one or two of the problems listed below is not necessarily cause for alarm. They may simply indicate that a practical solution is called for, such as more consistent discipline or a visit with the child’s teachers or guidance counselor to see whether there is anything out of the ordinary going on at school. A combination of symptoms, however, is a signal for professional intervention.

  • The child seems overwhelmed and troubled by his or her feelings, unable to cope with them.
  • The child cries a lot.
  • The child frequently asks or hints for help.
  • The child seems constantly preoccupied, worried, anxious, and intense. Some children develop a fear of a variety of things–rain, barking dogs, burglars, their parents’ getting killed when out of sight, and so on–while other children simply wear their anxiety on their faces.
  • The child has fears or phobias that are unreasonable or interfere with normal activities.
  • The child can’t seem to concentrate on schoolwork and other age-appropriate tasks.
  • The child’s school performance declines and doesn’t pick up again.
  • The child’s teachers, school administrators, or other authority figures in the child’s life ask the parent what might be troubling the child.
  • The child is having difficulty mastering school work.
  • Teachers suggest that the child may have a learning disability or other type of school-related problem.
  • The child loses interest in playing.
  • The child tries to stimulate himself or herself in various ways. Examples of this kind of behavior include excessive thumb sucking or hair pulling, rocking of the body, head banging to the point of hurting himself, and masturbating often or in public.
  • The child has no friends and gets into fights with other youngsters. Teachers or others may report that “this is a very angry or disruptive kid.”
  • The child isolates himself or herself from other people.
  • The child regularly talks about death and dying.
  • The child appears to have low self-esteem and little self-confidence. Over and over the child may make such comments as: “I can’t do anything right.” “I’m so stupid.” “I don’t see why anyone would love me.” “I know you [or someone else] hates me.” “Nobody likes me.” “I’m ugly… too big… too small… too fat… too skinny… too tall… too short, etc.”
  • Sleep difficulties don’t appear to be resolving. They include refusing to be separated from one or both parents at bedtime, inability to sleep, sleeping too much, sleeping on the parent’s or parents’ bed, nightmares, and night terrors.
  • The child begins to act in a provocatively sexual manner. This is more common in girls as they approach puberty and thereafter, but even much younger girls may flirt with men in sexually suggestive ways.
  • The child sets fires.

Some symptoms or reactions are so serious that a pediatrician or a psychiatrist should be consulted immediately:

  • The child talks about suicide. Children don’t talk idly about suicide to get attention. Once they have begun to talk about it, they also may have begun to plan a way to do it.
  • The child appears to be accident prone. In younger children a succession of accidents can become the equivalent of suicide attempts. The child mutilates himself in some way–cutting or scarring himself, pulling out his hair, or biting fingernails until nail beds bleed. The child mutilates or kills animals.
  • The child’s eating habits change to the point that his weight is affected. This can be caused by either overeating or undereating.
  • The child adopts ritualistic behaviors. This is indicative of obsessive-compulsive disorder. A child may have to line up her toys in a certain way every night, for example, or get ready for bed following a routine that never varies. If she forgets one item in the routine, she must start all over again.
  • The child beats up others–another child, a parent, or other adult.
  • The child is using alcohol or other drugs.
  • The child is sexually active or on the verge of becoming so. Again, this is rare in children 12 and under but certainly not unheard of, especially since there is great pressure on kids today to become sexually active at progressively earlier ages. When children are depressed or their self-esteem is low, they may be more vulnerable to that pressure. Also, if they are still hurting from feelings of rejection and loneliness related to the divorce, they may be searching for love and affection and have a need to prove their lovability.