Psychological illness is a term used to describe a wide range of inner experiences, feelings and behaviors that differ from what’s considered normal in most people. These symptoms can cause distress, dysfunction and/or impairment in a person’s life and may impact their work, school or family. Typically, the inner experiences, feelings and behavior reflect some kind of biological or psychological dysfunction that cannot be explained by a person’s culturally expected reactions to certain life events or situations.
Psychiatric disorders are generally defined by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) as symptoms that disrupt one’s thinking, emotions and behavior to the point of significant distress and impairment. The APA states that these symptoms must also cause distress in others, interfere with social or occupational functioning and/or cause significant impairment in the person’s daily living.
Many psychological disorders can be treated with some combination of psychotherapy and medication. Some forms of psychotherapy focus on modifying patterns of thought and behavior associated with a disorder, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Other approaches include psychoanalysis, which focuses on underlying psychic conflicts and defenses, and systems or interpersonal therapies that focus on a person’s relationships and support network.
Some of the most well known psychological disorders are anxiety disorders, which include specific phobias, generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder. These disorders are characterized by intense fear or other unpleasant sensations that are out of proportion to the actual threat. Depression disorders are another common category of psychological disorders. These are characterized by persistently low moods, which are experienced as so distressing that a person becomes functionally impaired and/or may even consider suicide.
Schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders are characterized by distorted perceptions of reality and delusions. Hallucinations, for example, are a typical symptom of schizophrenia. Schizophrenia can sometimes co-exist with other disorders such as schizoaffective disorder and schizotypy.
Disorders involving personality traits or behavior often begin in childhood, such as autism spectrum disorders, oppositional defiant disorder and conduct disorder. Other personality disorders, such as paranoid disorder and antisocial personality disorder (also referred to as dissocial personality disorder), can occur in adulthood.
Some severe mental illnesses require treatment in a psychiatric hospital, especially if there is an imminent risk of harm to self or others. A psychiatric hospital provides patients with counseling and other services, such as education on managing the condition. Some of these services are available on an outpatient basis as well. Most health insurance plans cover these services. The earlier a mental illness is diagnosed and treated, the easier it is to manage and overcome. See our list of Mental Health Resources for help finding free or lower-cost therapy options. Also, remember that psychological disorders are nothing to be ashamed of and that they don’t reflect a person’s character or worth. Rather, they are the result of abnormal biological, psychological and developmental processes that can’t always be prevented or controlled. You can recover from a psychological disorder and play an active role in your recovery process.