Just as with other medical illnesses, early intervention can make a crucial difference in preventing what could become a lifelong and potentially disabling psychiatric disorder.
Mental illnesses can take many forms, just as physical illnesses do. Mental illnesses are still feared and misunderstood by many people, but the fear will disappear as people learn more about them. If you, or someone you know, has a mental illness, there is good news: all mental illnesses can be treated.
Major mental illnesses such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder rarely appear “out of the blue.” Most often family, friends, teachers, or individuals themselves recognize that “something is not quite right” about their thinking, feelings, or behavior before one of these illnesses appears in its full-blown form. Being informed about developing symptoms, or early warning signs, can lead to intervention that can help reduce the severity of an illness. It may even be possible to delay or prevent a major mental illness altogether.
If several of the following are occurring, a serious condition may be developing.
One or two of these symptoms can’t predict a mental illness. But a person experiencing several together that are causing serious problems in his or her ability to study, work, or relate to others should be seen by a mental health professional. Guidance counselors, teachers or classmates are often the first to notice symptoms.
Although researchers don’t know exactly why some people experience anxiety disorders, they do know that there are various factors involved. Like many other mental health conditions, anxiety disorders seem to be a result of a combination of biological, psychological, and other individual factors. How we think and react to certain situations can affect anxiety. Some people may perceive certain situations to be more dangerous than they actually are (e.g., fear of flying). Others may have had a bad experience and they fear this will happen again (e.g., a dog bite). Some psychologists believe that childhood experiences can also contribute to anxiety.
Researchers know that problems with brain chemistry can contribute to the development of anxiety disorders. Certain neurotransmitters (chemical messengers) in the brain involved in anxiety include serotonin, norepinephrine, and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). Researchers have also shown that changes in activity in certain areas of the brain are involved in anxiety. Many anxiety disorders run in families and likely have a genetic cause.
Certain medical conditions such as anemia and thyroid problems can also cause symptoms of anxiety. As well, other factors such as caffeine, alcohol, and certain medications can cause anxiety symptoms. Traumatic life events such as the death of a family member, witnessing a death, war, and natural disasters such as hurricanes and earthquakes may trigger anxiety disorders.
Mood disorders are conditions that cause people to feel intense, prolonged emotions that negatively affect their mental well-being, physical health, relationships and behavior. In addition to feelings of depression, someone with bipolar disorder also has episodes of mania. Symptoms of mania may include extreme optimism, euphoria and feelings of grandeur; rapid, racing thoughts and hyperactivity; a decreased need for sleep; increased irritability; impulsiveness and possibly reckless behavior.
A major depressive disorder — usually just called “depression” — is different than the “blues”. Someone experiencing depression is grappling with feelings of severe despair over an extended period of time. Almost every aspect of their life can be affected, including their emotions, physical health, relationships and work. For people with depression, it does not feel like there is a “light at the end of the tunnel” — there is just a long, dark tunnel.
When someone has an eating disorder, their weight is the prime focus of their life. Their all-consuming preoccupation with calories, grams of fat, exercise and weight allows them to displace the painful emotions or situations that are at the heart of the problem and gives them a false sense of being in control. Read more about the details and types of Eating Disorders below.
Mood disorders affect about 10% of the population. Everyone experiences “highs” and “lows” in life, but people with mood disorders experience them with greater intensity and for longer periods of time than most people.
Depression is the most common mood disorder; a person with depression feels “very low.” Symptoms may include: feelings of hopelessness, changes in eating patterns, disturbed sleep, constant tiredness, an inability to have fun, and thoughts of death or suicide.
People with bipolar disorder have periods of depression and periods of feeling unusually “high” or elated. The “highs” get out of hand, and the manic person can behave in a reckless manner, sometimes to the point of financial ruin or getting in trouble with the law.
Schizophrenia is a mystery, a puzzle with missing pieces. This complex biochemical brain disorder affects a person’s ability to determine what is reality and what is not. It is as though the brain sends perceptions along the wrong path, leading to the wrong conclusion. People with schizophrenia are affected by delusions (fixed false beliefs that can be terrifying to the person experiencing them), hallucinations (sensory experiences, such as hearing voices talking about them when there is no one there), social withdrawal and disturbed thinking.
Self-injury, also called self-harm and self-abuse, refers to deliberate acts that cause harm to one’s body, mind and spirit. Examples include cutting the skin with razor blades or pieces of glass; burning and hitting oneself; scratching or picking scabs or preventing wounds from healing; hair pulling; and inserting objects into one’s body. Cutting is the most common form of self-injury among today’s youth. In a broader sense, behaviors such as smoking, alcohol and drug addiction, bingeing on food and staying in an abusive relationship can also be considered forms of self-harming. People who self-injure may not be trying to kill themselves. Usually, they are not trying to end all feeling; they are trying to feel better.
Experts in the field suggest that a suicidal person is feeling so much pain that they can see no other option. They feel that they are a burden to others, and in desperation see death as a way to escape their overwhelming pain and anguish. The suicidal state of mind has been described as constricted, filled with a sense of self-hatred, rejection, and hopelessness.
Suicidal thoughts or attempts and bizarrely violent or homicidal thoughts require immediate attention.
Untreated, these early symptoms may progress to a psychotic episode. That is, the individual may develop irrational beliefs (delusions), serious disturbances in perception (hallucinations), and disordered thought and speech, or become otherwise out of touch with reality. A psychotic episode can develop very gradually and may go untreated for extended periods of time.
Shame, fear, denial, and other factors often prevent individuals or their families from seeking help, even though the emergence of these symptoms as early as the teenage years is not caused by bad parenting. But help is available and treatments for major mental illnesses are more effective than ever before.
In today’s media reports about mental illness, there is a tendency to emphasize a supposed link between violence and mental illness. News stories regularly suggest that there is a strong connection between mental illness and crime. But the majority of people who are violent do not suffer from mental illnesses. In fact, people with a mental illness are more likely to be the victims, rather than the perpetrators of violence.