What Is a Psychological Illness?

psychological illness

Mental illness is a serious medical condition that affects a person’s thoughts, feelings and behavior. It may cause significant distress or disability in social and occupational functioning, and it can interfere with a person’s ability to enjoy life. The good news is that most people who have a psychological disorder can recover with treatment, including psychotherapy and medications.

The idea of a mental illness has been around for centuries, but it was not until recently that research showed it is much more common — and much more severe — than once believed. The new findings have helped to change the way mental health is viewed. No longer are people who experience a mental illness told to “toughen up” or that it is all their own fault. Instead, they are treated with the same urgency as a physical injury.

Psychiatric disorders are marked by inner experiences or behaviors that are highly disturbing to the person experiencing them and to other people. They must be a marked departure from what is considered normal for the person’s culture, and they must cause significant distress or impairment in the person’s life. This is the definition of a mental disorder, as outlined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), which was first published in 1952 and has been revised several times.

There are many different types of mental illnesses. Some, like depression, involve periods of intense sadness that can range from mild to severe and last for weeks or months. Other conditions are more acute, with a sudden onset and short duration, such as bipolar disorder. Psychoses include a broad category of severe mental illnesses with symptoms that can include delusions, hallucinations and profound disturbances in the thinking process or a lack of judgment and insight.

The occurrence of certain psychiatric conditions tends to run in families, suggesting that genetic factors play a role. But there is also evidence that some psychiatric disorders are caused by environmental and sociocultural factors. For example, schizophrenia often occurs among people living in poverty, while the incidence of anorexia nervosa and paranoid schizophrenia rises during adolescence. And dementias such as presenile and senile melancholia tend to occur in middle age or later.

A person with a mental illness typically seeks treatment from a licensed psychologist or psychiatrist. The goal of treatment is to reduce or eliminate the severity and frequency of symptoms and promote recovery, so that a person can lead a healthy, productive life. The most effective treatments for psychological illness are medications paired with therapy, which can be done in group or individual sessions. Other therapies that can be used to treat mental illness include cognitive behavioral therapy and various forms of family therapy. Some doctors use brain-stimulation techniques such as repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation and deep brain stimulation to treat a number of disorders, but these are generally reserved for cases when traditional treatment methods fail. Occasionally, people with severe and threatening psychiatric illnesses need to be hospitalized for care in a specialized psychiatric facility.