Psychological illness involves significant disturbances in thoughts, feelings and behaviour. These can cause significant impairment, distress and self-destructive behavior. The disturbances reflect some kind of dysfunction (either biological, psychological or developmental) and must be atypical for the person experiencing them. They must also be persistent, long-lasting and not merely culturally expected reactions to life events. Examples include hallucinations and delusions, disorganised thinking and highly disruptive behaviour.
The diagnosis of mental disorders relies on careful observation and a range of tests and procedures, including psychological assessments, brain scans and blood tests. Some disorders are rooted in biological factors, such as genetics and chemical imbalances in the body. Others are rooted in emotional or social factors, such as stress, childhood trauma or abuse, family and peer relationships and the cultural context of the individual.
Many people with mental health conditions can live full lives, achieve meaningful careers and enjoy healthy relationships if they receive the right treatment. The most common treatments for serious mental illness today involve a combination of medication, therapy and support services. Medication helps reduce the symptoms of the illness and improves a person’s quality of life, while therapies and other support services help a person cope with their condition and build skills to manage it.
There are more than 400 disorders that qualify as mental illnesses according to the current diagnostic manuals of the American Psychiatric Association and the World Health Organization. Most of these have been categorized as either internalizing or externalizing disorders, depending on whether the symptoms are focused on internal thoughts and feelings or on behaviours that are affecting other people. Twin and adoption studies have supported the heritability of most of these disorders.
Over the years, advances in neuroscience and genetics have led to new research agendas. New psychiatric medications have been introduced, such as SSRI antidepressants in the 1990s and antipsychotics later on, and behavioural therapies have developed. Deinstitutionalization has occurred, and a consumer/survivor movement has gained strength. New classification schemes, including the DSM and the ICD, have been developed as the evidence base has grown.
A person with a mental health disorder may need to be hospitalized so that they can be closely monitored, accurately diagnosed or have their medications adjusted when their illness temporarily worsens. Other services that can be helpful include case management, group support and complementary & alternative medicine, or CAM. Some of these treatments are used in place of or in addition to standard care practices, but they can have a positive impact on a person’s recovery and well-being. The key to recovery is active participation by the individual in all aspects of their care. This includes identifying goals for recovery, choosing treatment options, evaluating progress and participating in rehabilitation. Those with a mental health condition can benefit from the help of a network of professionals who specialize in helping them reach their wellness goals, including psychiatrists, psychologists, nurses and therapists. They can also use online support groups and educational programs.