Defining Mental Illness
We can all be “sad” or “blue” at times in our lives. We have all seen movies about the madman and his crime spree, with the underlying cause of mental illness. We sometimes even make jokes about people being crazy or nuts, even though we know that we shouldn’t. We have all had some exposure to mental illness, but do we really understand it or know what it is? Many of our preconceptions are incorrect. A mental illness can be defined as a health condition that changes a person’s thinking, feelings, or behavior (or all three) and that causes the person distress and difficulty in functioning. As with many diseases, mental illness is severe in some cases and mild in others. Individuals who have a mental illness don’t necessarily look like they are sick, especially if their illness is mild. Other individuals may show more explicit symptoms such as confusion, agitation, or withdrawal.
There are many different mental illnesses, including depression, schizophrenia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Each illness alters a person’s thoughts, feelings, and/or behaviors in distinct ways. In this module, we will at times discuss mental illness in general terms and at other times, discuss specific mental illnesses. Not all brain diseases are categorized as mental illnesses.
Disorders such as epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease, and multiple sclerosis are brain disorders, but they are considered neurological diseases rather than mental illnesses. Interestingly, the lines between mental illnesses and these other brain or neurological disorders is blurring somewhat. As scientists continue to investigate the brains of people who have mental illnesses, they are learning that mental illness is associated with changes in the brain’s structure, chemistry, and function and that mental illness does indeed have a biological basis. This ongoing research is, in some ways, causing scientists to minimize the distinctions between mental illnesses and these other brain disorders.
Optional Learning Activity: Well-being Self Assessment
Complete the Wellbeing Self-Assessment. This tool uses WEMWBS, a scale which is often used by scientists and psychologists to measure wellbeing. To get your wellbeing score, go through the statements and check the box that best describes your thoughts and feelings over the last two weeks.
Neurosis vs. Psychosis
Two generic psychiatric terms for mental states are neurosis and psychosis. Neurosis is a term no longer used medically as a diagnosis for a relatively mild mental or emotional disorder that may involve anxiety or phobias but does not involve losing touch with reality. Psychosis refers to a serious mental disorder in which a person loses contact with reality and experiences hallucinations or delusions.
Disturbances of perception and thought process fall into a broad category of symptoms referred to as psychosis. The threshold for determining whether thought is impaired varies somewhat with the cultural context. Like anxiety, psychotic symptoms may occur in a wide variety of mental disorders. They are most characteristically associated with schizophrenia, but psychotic symptoms can also occur in severe mood disorders. One of the most common groups of symptoms that result from disordered processing and interpretation of sensory information are the hallucinations.
Hallucinations are said to occur when an individual experiences a sensory impression that has no basis in reality. This impression could involve any of the sensory modalities. Thus hallucinations may be auditory, olfactory, gustatory, kinesthetic, tactile, or visual. For example, auditory hallucinations frequently involve the impression that one is hearing a voice. In each case, the sensory impression is falsely experienced as real. A more complex group of symptoms resulting from disordered interpretation of information consists of delusions. A delusion is a false belief that an individual holds despite evidence to the contrary. A common example is paranoia, in which a person has delusional beliefs that others are trying to harm him or her. Attempts to persuade the person that these beliefs are unfounded typically fail and may even result in the further entrenchment of the beliefs. Hallucinations and delusions are among the most commonly observed psychotic symptoms.
Symptoms generally involve the experience of something in consciousness that should not normally be present. For example, hallucinations and delusions represent perceptions or beliefs that should not normally be experienced. In addition to hallucinations and delusions, patients with psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia frequently have marked disturbances in the logical process of their thoughts. Specifically, psychotic thought processes are characteristically loose, disorganized, illogical, or bizarre. These disturbances in thought process frequently produce observable patterns of behavior that are also disorganized and bizarre. The severe disturbances of thought content and process that comprise the positive symptoms often are the most recognizable and striking features of psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia or manic depressive illness.
Mental Illness in the Population
Many people feel that mental illness is rare, something that only happens to people with life situations very different from their own, and that it will never affect them. Studies of the epidemiology of mental illness indicate that this belief is far from accurate. In fact, the surgeon general reports that mental illnesses are so common that few U.S. families are untouched by them.
Mental Illness in Adults
Even if you or a family member has not experienced mental illness directly, it is very likely that you have known someone who has. Estimates are that at least one in four people is affected by mental illness either directly or indirectly.
Consider the following statistics to get an idea of just how widespread the effects of mental illness are in society:
- According to recent estimates, approximately 20 percent of Americans, or about one in five people over the age of 18, suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year.
- Four of the 10 leading causes of disability—major depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and obsessive-compulsive disorder—are mental illnesses.
- About 3 percent of the population have more than one mental illness at a time.
- About 5 percent of adults are affected so seriously by mental illness that it interferes with their ability to function in society. These severe and persistent mental illnesses include schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, other severe forms of depression, panic disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
- Approximately 20 percent of doctors’ appointments are related to anxiety disorders such as panic attacks. Eight million people have depression each year.
- Two million Americans have schizophrenia disorders, and 300,000 new cases are diagnosed each year.
Warning Signs for Mental Illness
Each mental illness has its own characteristic symptoms. However, there are some general warning signs that might alert you that someone needs professional help. Some of these signs include 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, thinking or talking about suicide or harming oneself, extreme mood swings—high or low, abuse of alcohol or drugs, and excessive anger, hostility, or violent behavior.
A person who shows any of these signs should seek help from a qualified health professional. Diagnosing Mental Illness Mental Health Professionals To be diagnosed with a mental illness, a person must be evaluated by a qualified professional who has expertise in mental health. Mental health professionals include psychiatrists, psychologists, psychiatric nurses, social workers, and mental health counselors. Family doctors, internists, and pediatricians are usually qualified to diagnose common mental disorders such as depression, anxiety disorders, and ADHD. In many cases, depending on the individual and his or her symptoms, a mental health professional who is not a psychiatrist will refer the patient to a psychiatrist. A psychiatrist is a medical doctor (M.D.) who has received additional training in the field of mental health and mental illnesses.
Psychiatrists evaluate the person’s mental condition in coordination with his or her physical condition and can prescribe medication. Only psychiatrists and other M.D.s can prescribe medications to treat mental illness.
Mental Illnesses are Diagnosed by Symptoms
Unlike some disease diagnoses, doctors can’t do a blood test or culture some microorganisms to determine whether a person has a mental illness. Maybe scientists will develop discrete physiological tests for mental illnesses in the future; until then, however, mental health professionals will have to diagnose mental illnesses based on the symptoms that a person has. Basing a diagnosis on symptoms and not on a quantitative medical test, such as a blood chemistry test, a throat swab, X-rays, or urinalysis, is not unusual. Physicians diagnose many diseases, including migraines, Alzheimer’s disease, and Parkinson’s disease based on their symptoms alone. For other diseases, such as asthma or mononucleosis, doctors rely on analyzing symptoms to get a good idea of what the problem is and then use a physiological test to provide additional information or to confirm their diagnosis.
When a mental health professional works with a person who might have a mental illness, he or she will, along with the individual, determine what symptoms the individual has, how long the symptoms have persisted, and how his or her life is being affected. Mental health professionals often gather information through an interview during which they ask the patient about his or her symptoms, the length of time that the symptoms have occurred, and the severity of the symptoms. In many cases, the professional will also get information about the patient from family members to obtain a more comprehensive picture. A physician likely will conduct a physical exam and consult the patient’s history to rule out other health problems. Mental health professionals evaluate symptoms to make a diagnosis of mental illness. They rely on the criteria specified in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV; currently, the fourth edition), published by the American Psychiatric Association, to diagnose a specific mental illness.
For each mental illness, the DSM-IV gives a general description of the disorder and a list of typical symptoms. Mental health professionals refer to the DSM-IV to confirm that the symptoms a patient exhibits match those of a specific mental illness. Although the DSM-IV provides valuable information that helps mental health professionals diagnose mental illness, these professionals realize that it is important to observe patients over a period of time to understand the individual’s mental illness and its effects on his or her life.
The Causes of Mental Illnesses
At this time, scientists do not have a complete understanding of what causes mental illnesses. If you think about the structural and organizational complexity of the brain together with the complexity of effects that mental illnesses have on thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, it is hardly surprising that figuring out the causes of mental illnesses is a daunting task. The fields of neuroscience, psychiatry, and psychology address different aspects of the relationship between the biology of the brain and individuals’ behaviors, thoughts, and feelings, and how their actions sometimes get out of control. Through this multidisciplinary research, scientists are trying to find the causes of mental illnesses. Once scientists can determine the causes of a mental illness, they can use that knowledge to develop new treatments or to find a cure.
The Biology of Mental Illnesses
Most scientists believe that mental illnesses result from problems with the communication between neurons in the brain (neurotransmission). For example, the level of the neurotransmitter serotonin is lower in individuals who have depression. This finding led to the development of certain medications for the illness. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) work by reducing the amount of serotonin that is taken back into the presynaptic neuron. This leads to an increase in the amount of serotonin available in the synaptic space for binding to the receptor on the postsynaptic neuron. Changes in other neurotransmitters (in addition to serotonin) may occur in depression, thus adding to the complexity of the cause underlying the disease. Scientists believe that there may be disruptions in the neurotransmitters dopamine, glutamate, and norepinephrine in individuals who have schizophrenia. One indication that dopamine might be an important neurotransmitter in schizophrenia comes from the observation that cocaine addicts sometimes show symptoms similar to schizophrenia. Cocaine acts on dopamine-containing neurons in the brain to increase the amount of dopamine in the synapse.
Risk Factors for Mental Illnesses
Although scientists at this time do not know the causes of mental illnesses, they have identified factors that put individuals at risk. Some of these factors are environmental, some are genetic, and some are social. In fact, all these factors most likely combine to influence whether someone becomes mentally ill. Environmental factors such as head injury, poor nutrition, and exposure to toxins (including lead and tobacco smoke) can increase the likelihood of developing a mental illness. Scientists understand that mental illnesses are associated with changes in neurochemicals. For example, in people who have depression, less of the neurotransmitter serotonin (small circles) is released into the synaptic space than in people who do not have depression. Certain medications called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) relieve symptoms of depression by causing an increase in the amount of serotonin in the synaptic space. Social factors also present risks and can harm an individual’s, especially a child’s, mental health. Social factors include severe parental discord, death of a family member or close friend, parent’s mental illness, parent’s criminality, overcrowding, economic hardship, abuse, neglect, and exposure to violence.
Treating Mental Illnesses
At this time, most mental illnesses cannot be cured, but they can usually be treated effectively to minimize the symptoms and allow the individual to function in work, school, or social environments. To begin treatment, an individual needs to see a qualified mental health professional. The first thing that the doctor or other mental health professional will do is speak with the individual to find out more about his or her symptoms, how long the symptoms have lasted, and how the person’s life is being affected. The physician will also do a physical examination to determine whether there are other health problems. For example, some symptoms (such as emotional swings) can be caused by neurological or hormonal problems associated with chronic illnesses such as heart disease, or they can be a side effect of certain medications. After the individual’s overall health is evaluated and the condition diagnosed, the doctor will develop a treatment plan. Treatment can involve both medications and psychotherapy, depending on the disease and its severity.
Medications are often used to treat mental illnesses. Through television commercials and magazine advertisements, we are becoming more aware of those medications. To become fully effective, medications for treating mental illness must be taken for a few days or a few weeks. When a patient begins taking medication, it is important for a doctor to monitor the patient’s health. If the medication causes undesirable side effects, the doctor may change the dose or switch to a different medication that produces fewer side effects. If the medication does not relieve the symptoms, the doctor may prescribe a different medication. Sometimes, individuals who have a mental illness do not want to take their medications because of the side effects. It is important to remember that all medications have both positive and negative effects. For example, antibiotics have revolutionized treatment for some bacterial diseases. However, antibiotics often affect beneficial bacteria in the human body, leading to side effects such as nausea and diarrhea.
Psychiatric drugs, like other medications, can alleviate symptoms of mental illness but can also produce unwanted side effects. People who take a medication to treat an illness, whether it is a mental illness or another disease, should work with their doctors to understand what medication they are taking, why they are taking it, how to take it, and what side effects to watch for. Occasionally, the media reports stories in which the side effects of a psychiatric medication are tied to a potentially serious consequence, such as suicide. In these cases, it is usually very difficult to determine how much suicidal behavior was due to the mental disorder and what the role of the medication might have been. Medications for treating mental illness can, like other medications, have side effects. The psychiatrist or physician can usually adjust the dose or change the medication to alleviate side effects.
Psychotherapy is a treatment method in which a mental health professional (psychiatrist, psychologist, or other mental health professional) and the patient discuss problems and feelings. This discussion helps patients understand the basis of their problems and find solutions. Psychotherapy may take different forms. The therapy can help patients change thought or behavior patterns, understand how past experiences influence current behaviors, solve other problems in specific ways, or learn illness self-management skills.
Psychotherapy may occur between a therapist and an individual; a therapist and an individual and his or her family members; or a therapist and a group. Often, treatment for mental illness is most successful when psychotherapy is used in combination with medications. For severe mental illnesses, medication relieves the symptoms and psychotherapy helps individuals cope with their illness. Just as there are no medications that can instantly cure mental illnesses, psychotherapy is not a one-time event. The amount of time a person spends in psychotherapy can range from a few visits to a few years, depending on the nature of the illness or problem. In general, the more severe the problem, the more lengthy the psychotherapy should be.
Impact of Mental Illness
The high incidence of mental illness has a great impact on society. Treatment, including psychotherapy and medication management, is cost-effective for patients, their families, and society. The benefits include fewer visits to other doctors’ offices, diagnostic laboratories, and hospitals for physical ailments that are based in psychological distress; reduced need for psychiatric hospitalization; fewer sick days and disability claims; and increased job stability. Conversely, the costs of not treating mental disorders can be seen in ruined relationships, job loss or poor job performance, personal anguish, substance abuse, unnecessary medical procedures, psychiatric hospitalization, and suicide. Major mental disorders cost the nation at least $193 billion annually in lost earnings alone, according to a 2008 study funded by the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Mental Health.
Mental Health and Disabilities
The treatment received by those defined as mentally ill or disabled varies greatly from country to country. In post-millennial America, those of us who have never experienced such a disadvantage take for granted the rights our society guarantees for each citizen. We do not think about the relatively recent nature of the protections, unless, of course, we know someone constantly inconvenienced by the lack of accommodations or misfortune of suddenly experiencing a temporary disability.
People with mental disorders (a condition that makes it more difficult to cope with everyday life) and people with mental illness (a severe, lasting mental disorder that requires long term treatment) experience a wide range of effects.According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), the most common mental disorders in the United States are anxiety disorders. Almost 18 percent of American adults are likely to be affected in a single year, and 28 percent are likely to be affected over the course of a lifetime (National Institute of Mental Health 2005). It is important to distinguish between occasional feelings of anxiety and a true anxiety disorder. Anxiety is a normal reaction to stress that we all feel at some point, but anxiety disorders are feelings of worry and fearfulness that last for months at a time. Anxiety disorders include obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), panic disorders, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and both social and specific phobias. The second most common mental disorders in the United States are mood disorders; roughly 10 percent of American adults are likely to be affected yearly, while 21 percent are likely to be affected over the course of a lifetime (National Institute of Mental Health 2005).
Major mood disorders are depression, bipolar disorder, and dysthymic disorder. Like anxiety, depression might seem like something that everyone experiences at some point, and it is true that most people feel sad or “blue” at times in their lives. A true depressive episode, however, is more than just feeling sad for a short period. It is a long-term, debilitating illness that usually needs treatment to cure. And bipolar disorder is characterized by dramatic shifts in energy and mood, often affecting the individual’s ability to carry out day-to-day tasks. Bipolar disorder used to be called manic depression because of the way that people would swing between manic and depressive episodes.
Depending on what definition is used, there is some overlap between mood disorders and personality disorders, which affect nine percent of Americans yearly. The American Psychological Association publishes the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual on Mental Disorders (DSM), and their definition of personality disorders is changing in the fifth edition, which is being revised in 2011 and 2012. In the DSM-IV, personality disorders represent “an enduring pattern of inner experience and behavior that deviates markedly from the expectations of the culture of the individual who exhibits it” (National Institute of Mental Health). In other words, personality disorders cause people to behave in ways that are seen as abnormal to society but seem normal to them. The DSM-V proposes broadening this definition by offering five broad personality trait domains to describe personality disorders, some related to the level or type of their disconnect with society. As their application evolves, we will see how their definitions help scholars across disciplines understand the intersection of health issues and how they are defined by social institutions and cultural norms.
Another fairly commonly diagnosed mental disorder is Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), which statistics suggest affects nine percent of children and eight percent of adults on a lifetime basis (National Institute of Mental Health 2005). ADHD is one of the most common childhood disorders, and it is marked by difficulty paying attention, difficulty controlling behavior, and hyperactivity. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), ADHD responds positively to stimulant drugs like Ritalin, which helps people stay focused. However, there is some social debate over whether such drugs are being overprescribed (American Psychological Association). In fact, some critics question whether this disorder is really as widespread as it seems, or if it is a case of overdiagnosis. Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) have gained a lot of attention in recent years. The term ASD encompasses a group of developmental brain disorders that are characterized by “deficits in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication, and engagement in repetitive behaviors or interests” (National Institute of Mental Health).
Optional Learning Activity
Is ADHD a valid diagnosis and disease? Some think it is not. This article discusses this history of the issue.
The Americans with Disabilities Act requires that access be provided to everyone. Disability refers to a reduction in one’s ability to perform everyday tasks. The World Health Organization makes a distinction between the various terms used to describe handicaps that’s important to the sociological perspective. They use the term impairment to describe the physical limitations, while reserving the term disability to refer to the social limitation.
Before the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990, Americans with disabilities were often excluded from opportunities and social institutions many of us take for granted. This occurred not only through employment and other kinds of discrimination, but through casual acceptance by most Americans of a world designed for the convenience of the able-bodied. Imagine being in a wheelchair and trying to use a sidewalk without the benefit of wheelchair accessible curbs. Imagine as a blind person trying to access information without the widespread availability of Braille. Imagine having limited motor control and being faced with a difficult-to-grasp round door handle. Issues like these are what the ADA tries to address. Ramps on sidewalks, Braille instructions, and more accessible door levers are all accommodations to help people with disabilities.
People with disabilities can be stigmatized by their illness. Stigmatization means that their identity is spoiled; they are labeled as different, discriminated against, and sometimes even shunned. They are labeled and ascribed a master status, becoming “the blind girl” or “the boy in the wheelchair” instead of someone afforded a full identity by society. This can be especially true for people who are disabled due to mental illness or disorders. As discussed in the section on mental health, many mental health disorders can be debilitating, affecting a person’s ability to cope with everyday life. This can affect social status, housing, and especially employment. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (2011), people with a disability had a higher rate of unemployment than people without a disability in 2010: 14.8 percent to 9.4 percent. This unemployment rate refers only to people actively looking for a job. In fact, eight out of 10 people with a disability are considered “out of the labor force;” that is, they do not have jobs and are not looking for them. The combination of this population and the high unemployment rate leads to an employment-population ratio of 18.6 percent among those with disabilities. The employment-population ratio for people without disabilities was much higher, at 63.5 percent (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics 2011).
What are the most commonly diagnosed mental disorders in the United States?
- Mood disorders
- Autism spectrum disorders
- Anxiety disorders
Defining Mental Illness: Dedicated to Public Domain 2012, National Institutes of Health
Neurosis vs. Psychosis: NIH, http://science-education.nih.gov/supplements/nih5/Mental/other/glossary.htm
Mental Illness in the Population: NIH, http://science-education.nih.gov/supplements/nih5/Mental/guide/info-mental-a.htm