How to Decide if You Need Help


What Are Mental Illnesses?

Over 50 million Americans have mental illnesses, including schizophrenia, depression, and anxiety disorders. The phrase “mental illnesses” is used for several reasons:

  • Recent research has shown that many of these disorders have a biological origin;
  • Medication is frequently a part of treatment; and
  • As with physical illnesses, mental illnesses are not signs of personal weakness but real and serious disorders deserving skilled and compassionate treatment.

A range of mental health problems, such as family quarrels, dealing with stress, and fears, can benefit from short-term counseling and treatment. Mental illnesses, however, are very serious conditions in which symptoms such as depression, anxiety, and disorientation are severe and last for a prolonged period, often leading to an inability to cope with everyday life.

What Causes Mental Illnesses?

The causes of mental illnesses are not well understood; different causes exist for different disorders. Current research suggests that there may be an inherited predisposition to develop a disorder and that many disorders involve a problem in transferring information from one brain cell to another. In addition, stressful situations and the use of recreational drugs may contribute to the onset of a disorder in a susceptible person. Formerly popular theories that dysfunctional family systems cause mental illnesses are not supported by research.

What Are the Signs of Mental Illness?

The following various signs may indicate that a person needs to seek treatment. One symptom is not necessarily a sign of a mental illness, but if problems worsen or multiply, a mental health professional should be consulted.

  • Marked personality changes over time. Confused thinking; strange or grandiose ideas.
  • Prolonged severe depression, apathy, or extreme highs and lows. Excessive anxieties, fears, or suspiciousness; blaming others.
  • Withdrawal from society, friendlessness; abnormal self-centeredness. Denial of obvious problems; strong resistance to help.
  • Thinking or talking about suicide.
  • Numerous unexplained physical ailments; marked changes in eating or sleeping patterns or hostility out of proportion to the situation. Abuse of alcohol or drugs.
  • Growing inability to cope with problems and daily activities such as school, job, or personal needs.

Physical Health Problems

Sometimes physical health problems can produce symptoms that resemble those of mental illnesses. Various physical diseases and other conditions (from dietary deficiencies to lead poisoning) can cause or worsen psychiatric symptoms. For this reason, it may be essential to have a physical health evaluation to ensure a physical condition does not reflect the problem.