Psychological illness can cause a range of distressing and disabling symptoms. The symptoms are different from normal, and they are not due to a particular event or situation (called a trigger). They are often much harder to control than a person would wish and affect the way they live their lives. They can also be very hard for family and friends to understand, but a lot of help and support is available.
It is important to remember that people with mental health problems are not broken and did nothing wrong, and that recovery, including meaningful roles in social life, work and education, is possible. There are many reasons people develop a psychological disorder, and research suggests that genes and environment are both important factors. A number of life events and situations have been linked to the development of disorders, such as abuse, neglect, bullying, trauma and stress. Social influences can also play a role, for example the lack of social cohesion, poverty, unemployment and issues linked to migration.
Psychiatry is the branch of medicine that deals with mental health issues. It aims to find and treat the causes of psychological distress and disabling symptoms, helping people to have a good quality of life. It is also an important part of the public health service, offering treatment to people who cannot get the help they need from other services, such as social care and the NHS.
The history of psychiatry is a long and complex one. Before the 19th century, it was widely believed that some people had evil spirits haunting them, and that they could only be freed by whipping, bloodletting, purging or trepanation (cutting a hole in the skull). People who were mentally ill were often kept in insane asylums where treatment was harsh, but advances in knowledge about mental disorders and the development of better medicines have led to much more helpful and humane treatments.
Depression is a common mental illness, and it can be very severe and debilitating. Symptoms include feeling low, hopelessness and having thoughts of death and suicide. Fortunately, the combination of modern medicines and therapy techniques has made it possible to treat depression very effectively.
Other types of psychological disorder include anxiety disorders, such as agoraphobia (the fear of leaving the house), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). These conditions are caused by very frightening or distressing experiences, such as a car accident, rape, war or the sudden death of a loved one. They can cause flashbacks, sleep disturbances and feelings of numbness.
Some people with severe mental illness may need to undergo electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). This is a very safe and effective treatment for certain disorders, such as depression and bipolar disorder. You can read more about this in our section on ECT, which includes information about what it is, how it works and your rights to refuse it. The section also explains other treatments, such as talking therapies, and how to access these on the NHS and privately.