Breaking the Silence

Website for the American Mental Health Counselors Association's Breaking the Silence initiative to address mental health stigma.

FAQ

Frequently Asked Questions About Mental Illness

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What does it mean to have a mental illness?

What is considered a serious mental illness?

What causes mental illness?

What Biological Factors Are Involved in Mental Illness?

What Psychological Factors Contribute to Mental Illness?

What Environmental Factors Contribute to Mental Illness?

Is anyone immune to mental illness?

Once someone has had a mental illness can they ever get better again?

How common is mental illness?

What are some of the warning signs of mental illness?

What should I do if I know someone who appears to have all of the symptoms of a serious mental disorder?

How can you determine if an illness is causing depression or depression is causing an illness?

What treatment options are available?

What does it mean to have a mental illness?

Mental illnesses are medical conditions that disrupt a person’s thinking, feeling, mood, ability to relate to others, and daily functioning. Just as diabetes is a disorder of the pancreas, mental illnesses are medical conditions that often result in a diminished capacity for coping with the ordinary demands of life.

Some of the more common disorders are depression, bipolar disorder, dementia, schizophrenia and anxiety disorders. Symptoms may include changes in mood, personality, personal habits and/or social withdrawal. When these occur in children under 18, they are referred to as serious emotional disturbances (SEDs). Mental illnesses can affect persons of any age, race, religion, or income.

Source: National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)

 

What is considered a serious mental illness?

Serious mental illnesses include major depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), panic disorder, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and borderline personality disorder. All mental illnesses fall along a continuum of severity.

Source: The Kim Foundation

 

What causes mental illness?

Although the exact cause of most mental illnesses is not known, it is becoming clear through research that many of these conditions are caused by a combination of biological, psychological, and environmental factors.

Source: WebMD

 

What biological factors are involved in mental illness?

Some mental illnesses have been linked to an abnormal balance of special chemicals in the brain called neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters help nerve cells in the brain communicate with each other. If these chemicals are out of balance or are not working properly, messages may not make it through the brain correctly, leading to symptoms of mental illness. In addition, defects in or injury to certain areas of the brain have also been linked to some mental conditions.

Other biological factors that may be involved in the development of mental illness include:

  • Genetics (heredity): Many mental illnesses run in families, suggesting that people who have a family member with a mental illness are more susceptible (have a greater likelihood of being affected) to developing a mental illness. Susceptibility is passed on in families through genes. Experts believe many mental illnesses are linked to abnormalities in many genes, not just one. That is why a person inherits a susceptibility to a mental illness and doesn’t necessarily develop the illness. Mental illness itself occurs from the interaction of multiple genes and other factors such as stress, abuse, or a traumatic event, which can influence, or trigger, an illness in a person who has an inherited susceptibility to it.
  • Infections: Certain infections have been linked to brain damage and the development of mental illness or the worsening of its symptoms. For example, a condition known as pediatric autoimmune neuropsychiatric disorder (PANDA) associated with the streptococcus bacteria has been linked to the development of obsessive-compulsive disorder and other mental illnesses in children.
  • Brain defects or injury: Defects in or injury to certain areas of the brain have also been linked to some mental illnesses.
  • Prenatal damage: Some evidence suggests that a disruption of early fetal brain development or trauma that occurs at the time of birth, for example, loss of oxygen to the brain, may be a factor in the development of certain conditions, such as autism.
  • Other factors: Poor nutrition and exposure to toxins, such as lead, may play a role in the development of mental illnesses.
Source: WebMD

 

What psychological factors contribute to mental illness?

Psychological factors that may contribute to mental illness include:

  • Severe psychological trauma suffered as a child, such as emotional, physical, or sexual abuse
  • An important early loss, such as the loss of a parent
  • Neglect
  • Poor ability to relate to others
Source: WebMD

 

What environmental factors contribute to mental illness?

Certain stressors can trigger an illness in a person who is susceptible to mental illness. These stressors include:

  • Death or divorce
  • A dysfunctional family life
  • Living in poverty
  • Feelings of inadequacy, low self-esteem, anxiety, anger or loneliness
  • Changing jobs or schools
  • Social or cultural expectations (For example, a society that associates beauty with thinness can be a factor in the development of eating disorders.)
  • Substance abuse by the person or the person’s parents
Source: WebMD

 

Is anyone immune to mental illness?

Mental illnesses can affect persons of any age, race, religion, or income. They do not discriminate.

Although mental illnesses can affect anyone, certain conditions such as eating disorders tend to occur more often in females, and other disorders such as attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder more commonly occur in children.

Source: National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)

 

Once someone has had a mental illness can they ever get better again?

Remember, most people with mental illnesses who are diagnosed and treated will respond well and live productive lives. Many never have the same problem again, although some will experience a return of symptoms. The important thing is that there is a range of effective treatments for just about every mental disorder.

Source: The Kim Foundation

 

How common is mental illness?

Mental illnesses are very common; in fact, they are more common than cancer, diabetes or heart disease. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, approximately 43.8 million adults in the U.S. or 18.5% experience mental illness in a given year.

Even though mental disorders are widespread in the population, the main burden of illness is concentrated in a much smaller proportion, about 1 in 25 Americans, who suffer from a serious mental illness (one that significantly interferes with functioning). It is estimated that mental illness affects 1 in 5 individuals in America.

Source: National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)

 

What are some of the warning signs of mental illness?

Symptoms of mental disorders vary depending on the type and severity of the condition. Some general symptoms that may suggest a mental disorder include:

In adults:

  • Confused thinking
  • Long-lasting sadness or irritability
  • Extreme highs and lows in mood
  • Excessive fear, worrying or anxiety
  • Social withdrawal
  • Dramatic changes in eating or sleeping habits
  • Strong feelings of anger
  • Delusions or hallucinations (seeing or hearing things that are not really there)
  • Increasing inability to cope with daily problems and activities
  • Thoughts of suicide
  • Denial of obvious problems
  • Many unexplained physical problems
  • Abuse of drugs and/or alcohol

In older children and pre-teens:

  • Abuse of drugs and/or alcohol
  • Inability to cope with daily problems and activities
  • Changes in sleeping and/or eating habits
  • Excessive complaints of physical problems
  • Defying authority, skipping school, stealing or damaging property
  • Intense fear of gaining weight
  • Long-lasting negative mood, often along with poor appetite and thoughts of death
  • Frequent outbursts of anger

In younger children:

  • Changes in school performance
  • Poor grades despite strong efforts
  • Excessive worrying or anxiety
  • Hyperactivity
  • Persistent nightmares
  • Persistent disobedience and/or aggressive behavior
  • Frequent temper tantrums
Source: WebMD

 

What should I do if I know someone who appears to have all of the symptoms of a serious mental disorder?

Although this website cannot substitute for professional advice, we encourage those with symptoms to talk to their friends and family members. If you know someone who is having problems, don’t just think that they will snap out of it.

Let them know that you care about them, and there are ways this can be treated. Notify a family member, a mental health professional, a counselor or someone if you think you have symptoms or if a friend has symptoms.

The more you or your friends realize how many people care about them, the more likely it will be that treatment will be sought.

 Source: The Kim Foundation

 

How can you determine if an illness is causing depression or depression is causing an illness?

Illnesses that can lead to depression are usually major, chronic, and/or terminal. When an illness is causing depression, there is often long-term pain present or there is a sudden change in lifestyle.

Depression causes illness in a different way.  Like psychological stress, it can weaken the immune system (cells involved in fighting disease and keeping you healthy), allowing a person to get more colds or the flu.  There is often a notable presence of “aches and pains” with no particular cause. Having depression may also cause the symptoms of another medical illness to last longer and intensify its symptoms, but the true relationship of depression-induced illness, in terms of major disease, has not been thoroughly defined.

It is important to seek the advice of your doctor if you think you or someone you know may have depression. Your primary care doctor is a good place to start. He can screen you for depression and develop a treatment plan to help manage your symptoms.

Source: The Kim Foundation

 

What treatment options are available?

Just as there are different types of medications for physical illness, different treatment options are available for individuals with mental illness. Treatment works differently for different people. It is important to find what works best for you or your child.

Source: The Kim Foundation

 

The Continuum of Care for Children and Adolescents

The beginning point for parents concerned about their child’s behavior or emotions should be an evaluation by a qualified mental health professional such as a child and adolescent psychiatrist. After the conclusion of the evaluation, the professional will recommend a certain type of service(s) or program(s) from the continuum available locally.

The professional is then usually required to obtain approval from the insurance company or organization managing mental health benefits (e.g. managed care organization). In the case of programs funded publicly, a specific state agency must authorize the recommended program(s) or service(s). If the program or service is not authorized, it will not be paid. Many of the programs on the continuum offer a variety of different treatments, such as individual psychotherapy, family therapy, group therapy, and medications.

A brief description of the different services or programs in a continuum of care follows:

Office or outpatient clinic
Visits are usually 30-60 minutes. The number of visits per month depends on the youngster’s needs.
Intensive case management
Specially trained individuals coordinate or provide psychiatric, financial, legal, and medical services to help the child or adolescent live successfully at home and in the community.
Home-based treatment services
A team of specially trained staff go into a home and develop a treatment program to help the child and family.
Family support services
Services to help families care for their child such as parent training, parent support group, etc.
Day treatment program
This intensive treatment program provides psychiatric treatment with special education. The child usually attends five days per week.
Partial hospitalization (day hospital)
This provides all the treatment services of a psychiatric hospital, but the patients go home each evening.
Emergency/crisis services
24-hour-per-day services for emergencies (for example, hospital emergency room, mobile crisis team).
Respite care services
A patient stays briefly away from home with specially trained individuals.
Therapeutic group home or community residence
This therapeutic program usually includes 6 to 10 children or adolescents per home, and may be linked with a day treatment program or specialized educational program.
Crisis residence
This setting provides short-term (usually fewer than 15 days) crisis intervention and treatment. Patients receive 24-hour-per-day supervision.
Residential treatment facility
Seriously disturbed patients receive intensive and comprehensive psychiatric treatment in a campus-like setting on a longer-term basis.
Hospital treatment
Patients receive comprehensive psychiatric treatment in a hospital. Treatment programs should be specifically designed for either children or adolescents. Length of treatment depends on different variables.
Parents should always ask questions when a professional recommends psychiatric treatment for their child or adolescent.

For instance, which types of treatment are provided, and by whom? Parents should also ask about the length of time? What is the cost? How much of the cost is covered by insurance or public funding? What are the advantages and disadvantages of the recommended service or program? Parents should always feel free to obtain a second opinion about the best type of program for their child or adolescent.

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