Psychological illness is the term given to a wide range of inner experiences and disordered behaviour that, according to psychiatry, reflect a dysfunction in normal mental functioning. The disordered thoughts and feelings that characterize a psychological illness may lead to significant distress or disability in daily life activities, as judged by the individual’s culture. These disorders should not be confused with the neurological diseases (see neurology) with behavioral manifestations, with alcoholism and drug abuse (discussed in addiction), or with the various theories of personality structure and dynamics discussed in personality.
Mental illnesses are diagnosed by trained professionals in the fields of psychiatry, psychology and counseling. They are considered illnesses because they affect people differently from the way healthy people function, and can have serious consequences for the person suffering them and for society as a whole.
Untreated mental illnesses can lead to suicide, homelessness, poverty, poor performance in work and school and other activities, substance abuse, incarceration, unemployment and a low quality of life. In the United States, the economic cost of untreated mental illness is estimated at more than 100 billion dollars a year.
The causes of mental illnesses are not completely understood, but genetic and environmental factors play a role. Some mental illnesses arise as a result of trauma, such as a car accident or war, and are known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). People who experience a traumatic event can develop bipolar mood disorders, which involve extreme lows, called depression, and highs, called mania.
Most of the treatment options for mental illnesses are psychosocial treatments, rather than medications. These include psychotherapy, cognitive behavior therapy and interpersonal therapy. Psychotherapy involves a therapeutic relationship between a patient and a licensed mental health professional, often a psychiatrist or psychologist. Different modes of psychotherapy focus on different aspects of the disorder, including emotional experience, thought processes and overt behaviour.
Medical treatments for mental illness, such as psychiatric drugs, can reduce symptoms and improve the patient’s quality of life. Medications such as antidepressants, antipsychotics and lithium treat disorders of the brain and nervous system. Benzodiazepines were once popular as antianxiety drugs, but their dependency problems curbed their use, and newer antipsychotics are replacing older ones.
Recovery from a mental illness is a process that includes achieving and maintaining a job and healthy relationships, living in a safe and supportive environment, avoiding dangerous situations and gaining access to health care. A support group is a source of peer support that can help with these goals. Complementary and alternative medicine, such as yoga, meditation and acupuncture, are also available to some individuals. Mental illness is one of the world’s most common health problems, but it can be overcome through the right combination of medications and psychosocial treatment. Some people recover fully, while others may continue to struggle with a chronic illness. However, the majority of people with mental illness can live full lives with the proper care and treatment. It’s important to talk about it.