what is mental illness

What Is Mental Illness?

Mental illness is, first and foremost, an illness. Too often, it’s treated as something to be feared or laughed at:

  • Historical trends of opening mental hospitals to public tourism, with little concern for patient privacy or dignity
  • Halloween attractions with “asylum horror” themes
  • TV dramas featuring “insane” serial killers
  • Jokes along the lines of “Doctor, my husband thinks he’s a toaster”

In real life, very few people with mental health concerns are “insane” in the commonly pictured forms. Many stand out no more than the average person without such a condition.

Mental illness is:

1. Varied

Like “cancer,” “mental illness” is no single entity, but a blanket term covering a variety of manifestations. The U. S. National Library of Medicine defines “mental disorders/mental illnesses” as “conditions that affect thinking, feeling, mood and behavior.”

Some common forms of mental illness are:

  • Depression (persistent feelings of hopelessness, distinct from temporary “depressed” moods)
  • Anxiety disorder (chronic unreasonable worrying, and/or recurring panic attacks)
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (extreme felt need to keep some or all aspects of life in a specific perfect order)
  • Schizophrenia (proneness to hallucinations and paranoid delusions: schizophrenia is sometimes confused with dissociative identity disorder, commonly nicknamed “split personality”)

Besides differences between types of mental disorders, there are symptomatic differences between individuals with the same type. A person with obsessive-compulsive disorder, for example, may hoard neckties, wash his hands constantly or recite the same good-luck mantra every hour on the hour.

2. Common

Medical experts agree that 2026 percent of Americans have diagnosable mental illness. Few people are aware of this prevalence because the majority of those who have mental illness don’t stand out. They work full-time jobs, manage households, talk to others and have hobbies like everyone else.

This doesn’t mean that such “high-functioning” mental health issues are no cause for concern. However healthy they seem to casual observers, people with these disorders also live with chronic high stress, relationship issues and difficulties achieving their potential.

3. Limited in Effect

That is, poor mental health seldom erases all ability to process reality. Even people with “low-functioning” forms are aware that they struggle with feelings and perceptions others don’t. Contrary to stereotypes of the blissfully insane in their own privately created perfect worlds, most people with mental illness suffer extreme emotional pain they desperately want to get rid of. Too many give up the fight: the majority of people who die by suicide have some form of mental illness.

Adding to the pain is the feeling that no one understands, which is too often true. Stereotypes and stigma remain prevalent, making empathy hard to find. People with known mental illness are frequently treated as though they have no feelings or are incapable of understanding anything. Those whose illness is unknown and not obviously impairing may be regarded as simply unreasonable, stubborn or thoughtless.

4. Treatable

Mental illness is a complex problem with no single cause, and is rarely curable in the “gone forever” sense. In nearly every case, however, recovery is possible in that the diagnosis need not continue to dominate a person’s life.

Sometimes, a case of mental illness appears to go away on its own, only to return when stress increases or old triggers resurface. Truly effective recovery requires a formal diagnosis and professional treatment: therapy, lifestyle changes, new thinking patterns and often medication. Plus preparation to recognize signs of relapse, and someone to contact for help if that happens.

The worst thing is being so afraid of mental health concerns as to refuse to acknowledge that you or a family member may have it. Again, mental illness is an illness. It’s probably no one’s fault, and there’s nothing to be gained from punishing yourself. Seek help in the present for the sake of the future.

Help and Hope for Mental Illness

Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of—and it needn’t keep you or a loved one from living a fulfilling life. At Serene Behavioral Health, we offer professional treatment, with therapy and medication, for most forms of mental illness at various levels of inpatient and outpatient care. Contact us today to learn more.

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