- Identify key characteristics and symptoms of mental illnesses
Mental illnesses are nervous system disorders that result in problems with thinking, mood, or relating with other people. These disorders are severe enough to affect a person’s quality of life and often make it difficult for people to perform the routine tasks of daily living. Debilitating mental disorders plague approximately 12.5 million Americans (about 1 in 17 people) at an annual cost of more than $300 billion. There are several types of mental disorders including schizophrenia, major depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders and phobias, post-traumatic stress disorders, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), among others. The American Psychiatric Association publishes the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (or DSM), which describes the symptoms required for a patient to be diagnosed with a particular mental disorder. Each newly released version of the DSM contains different symptoms and classifications as scientists learn more about these disorders, their causes, and how they relate to each other. A more detailed discussion of two mental illnesses—schizophrenia and major depression—is given below.
Schizophrenia is a serious and often debilitating mental illness affecting one percent of people in the United States. Symptoms of the disease include the inability to differentiate between reality and imagination, inappropriate and unregulated emotional responses, difficulty thinking, and problems with social situations. People with schizophrenia can suffer from hallucinations and hear voices; they may also suffer from delusions. Patients also have so-called “negative” symptoms like a flattened emotional state, loss of pleasure, and loss of basic drives. Many schizophrenic patients are diagnosed in their late adolescence or early 20s.
The development of schizophrenia is thought to involve malfunctioning dopaminergic neurons and may also involve problems with glutamate signaling. Treatment for the disease usually requires antipsychotic medications that work by blocking dopamine receptors and decreasing dopamine neurotransmission in the brain. This decrease in dopamine can cause Parkinson’s disease-like symptoms in some patients. While some classes of antipsychotics can be quite effective at treating the disease, they are not a cure, and most patients must remain medicated for the rest of their lives.
Major depression affects approximately 6.7 percent of the adults in the United States each year and is one of the most common mental disorders. To be diagnosed with major depressive disorder, a person must have experienced a severely depressed mood lasting longer than two weeks along with other symptoms including a loss of enjoyment in activities that were previously enjoyed, changes in appetite and sleep schedules, difficulty concentrating, feelings of worthlessness, and suicidal thoughts.
The exact causes of major depression are unknown and likely include both genetic and environmental risk factors. Some research supports the “classic monoamine hypothesis,” which suggests that depression is caused by a decrease in norepinephrine and serotonin neurotransmission. One argument against this hypothesis is the fact that some antidepressant medications cause an increase in norepinephrine and serotonin release within a few hours of beginning treatment—but clinical results of these medications are not seen until weeks later. This has led to alternative hypotheses: for example, dopamine may also be decreased in depressed patients, or it may actually be an increase in norepinephrine and serotonin that causes the disease, and antidepressants force a feedback loop that decreases this release.
Treatments for depression include psychotherapy, electroconvulsive therapy, deep-brain stimulation, and prescription medications. There are several classes of antidepressant medications that work through different mechanisms. For example, monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAO inhibitors) block the enzyme that degrades many neurotransmitters (including dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine), resulting in increased neurotransmitter in the synaptic cleft. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) block the reuptake of serotonin into the presynaptic neuron. This blockage results in an increase in serotonin in the synaptic cleft. Other types of drugs such as norepinephrine-dopamine reuptake inhibitors and norepinephrine-serotonin reuptake inhibitors are also used to treat depression.