What is Psychological Illness?

Psychological illness is a pattern of symptoms that interferes with life and affects thoughts, feelings and behavior. These symptoms can cause distress and impact the person’s daily functioning, relationships, work and school. A variety of disorders fall under this category, and there are many different treatments available. Treatment depends on the type of disorder and the severity. Some conditions require hospitalization, but most people can find relief from their symptoms and learn ways to manage them.

A standardized classification system with agreed-upon definitions of mental disorders has made progress possible. This includes the development of a classification manual called the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) by the American Psychiatric Association. The criteria for diagnosing psychological disorders focuses on a number of factors: the disturbances in inner experiences and behaviors must reflect some kind of dysfunction, they must significantly interfere with life, and they must not reflect culturally expected reactions to certain life events.

The DSM-5 lists hundreds of conditions under this category, including anxiety and depression. Some disorders can be short-term, while others are lifelong and may have a serious impact on health, well-being and relationships.

Some psychological disorders develop in childhood and continue into adulthood. Examples include autism spectrum disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Other conditions are a result of trauma, such as posttraumatic stress disorder, a condition characterized by feelings of anxiety, irritability, fear, numbness and difficulty remembering specific aspects of the event, and adjustment disorders, which are triggered by a loss or disappointment such as divorce, job loss or a breakup. Other disorders are caused by substance abuse, including alcohol and drug addiction.

Most psychological disorders are treated with some combination of medications, therapy and other therapies. A health care provider will start by doing a physical exam and checking to see if there are any physical problems that could explain the symptoms. Then a mental health professional will conduct a psychological evaluation, or psychotherapy. This usually involves one-on-one sessions with a therapist, sometimes in groups with other patients.

There are many types of psychotherapy, but the most common is cognitive behavioral therapy, which aims to change unhealthy patterns of thought and behavior. Other psychotherapies involve examining underlying conflicts and defenses in a person’s personality, such as psychoanalysis and interpersonal psychotherapy. A newer approach, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy, has been effective in treating some types of trauma.

In some cases, people who have a severe mental disorder may need to be hospitalized in a psychiatric hospital or long-term residential treatment program. This might be because of the degree to which the illness interferes with their everyday lives or because they are at risk of harming themselves or others.

The goal of treatment is to improve a person’s ability to function and enjoy life. Depending on the disorder, treatment can range from psychotherapy to family and group therapy to support groups to medication. People with some mental disorders benefit from community services, such as housing, food stamps and employment assistance.