In psychological illness, there is dysfunction in the way that an individual thinks, feels or behaves. This can cause serious distress and impairment in daily life. It may be a temporary problem that improves as time passes or it may be long-term and a major limiting factor in someone’s career, family and friendships, and ability to live a satisfying life. People with mental disorders experience suffering and disability, and many are subject to discrimination, stigma and violations of human rights.
A diagnosis of a mental disorder requires significant disturbances in mood, thinking and behavior that have not been caused by normal reactions to certain events (e.g., the death of a loved one). Disturbances must be socially unacceptable and must cause distress that is not easily explained by other causes. For example, a person who is depressed might be experiencing the expected response to a difficult event, but if the depression interferes with his or her everyday functioning, this may be a sign that it is time to seek help.
The dysfunction must also be harmful to the individual or others. Some examples of harm include: a lack of interest in previously enjoyed activities; problems in school, work or relationships; severe and persistent sadness or depression; self-injurious behavior; feelings of fear and anxiety that are out of proportion to the actual dangers a person might face; or a failure to cope with a painful situation.
Though it is not always clear how or why psychological disorders develop, a number of important influences have been identified. Genetic factors, environmental factors such as abuse, neglect and bullying, social factors such as lack of employment opportunities and family or cultural influences have all been linked to mental health problems.
There are many different kinds of disorders, and a classification scheme is often used to organize them. The most commonly recognized categories are anxiety disorders, mood disorders and psychotic disorders. Anxiety disorders are characterized by excessive and persistent anxiety and fears that affect a range of everyday activities, such as eating, sleeping, working and socializing. Some examples of these are phobias, panic attacks and agoraphobia. Mood disorders are characterized by intense and persistent feelings of sadness or emptiness that are significantly above those experienced by other people in the same situation. Depression and bipolar disorder are two such conditions. Psychotic disorders are characterized by abnormal beliefs, perceptions and thought processes, such as hallucinations and delusions. Schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder are examples of this category.
Psychiatry is the field of medical science that studies mental disorders. It grew out of the 17th-century Enlightenment and the rise of ideas like psychoanalysis, Freud’s theory of sexual desires, Kraepelin’s classification system, and a movement toward moral treatment of asylum patients. Many people with mental disorders still do not receive adequate treatment and suffer from discrimination, stigma and violations of their human rights. This is despite the fact that effective prevention and treatment options are available. Mental health professionals are trained to assess and treat people with mental illnesses and provide a wide range of services, including counseling, education, training and support groups, and medicines. Some people who have serious mental disorders may need to stay in a psychiatric hospital, particularly when they are at risk of hurting themselves or other people.