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Frequently Asked Questions

What does it mean to have a mental illness?

Mental illnesses are health conditions that disrupt a person’s thoughts, emotions, relationships, and daily functioning. They are associated with distress and diminished capacity to engage in the ordinary activities of daily life.

Mental illnesses fall along a continuum of severity: some are fairly mild and only interfere with some aspects of life, such as certain phobias. On the other end of the spectrum lie serious mental illnesses, which result in major functional impairment and interference with daily life. These include such disorders as major depression, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder, and may require that the person receives care in a hospital.

It is important to know that mental illnesses are medical conditions that have nothing to do with a person’s character, intelligence, or willpower. Just as diabetes is a disorder of the pancreas, mental illness is a medical condition due to the brain’s biology.

Similarly, to how one would treat diabetes with medication and insulin, mental illness is treatable with a combination of medication and social support. These treatments are highly effective, with 70-90 percent of individuals receiving treatment experiencing a reduction in symptoms and an improved quality of life. With the proper treatment, it is very possible for a person with mental illness to be independent and successful.

Who does mental illness affect?

It is estimated that mental illness affects 1 in 5 adults in America, and that 1 in 24 adults have a serious mental illness. Mental illness does not discriminate; it can affect anyone, regardless of gender, age, income, social status, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or background. 

Although mental illness can affect anyone, certain conditions may be more common in different populations. For instance, eating disorders tend to occur more often in females, while disorders such as attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder is more prevalent in children. 

Additionally, all ages are susceptible, but the young and the old are especially vulnerable. Mental illnesses usually strike individuals in the prime of their lives, with 75 percent of mental health conditions developing by the age of 24. This makes identification and treatment of mental disorders particularly difficult, because the normal personality and behavioral changes of adolescence may mask symptoms of a mental health condition. 

Parents and caretakers should be aware of this fact, and take notice of changes in their child’s mood, personality, personal habits, and social withdrawal. When these occur in children under 18, they are referred to as serious emotional disturbances (SEDs).

What causes mental illness?

Although the exact source of mental illness is not known, research points to a mix of genetic, biological, psychosocial, and environmental factors as being the root of most conditions.

Since this combination of causes is complex, there is no sure way to prevent mental illness. However, you can reduce your risk by practicing self-care, seeking help when you need it, and paying attention to early warning signs.

What are some of the warning signs of mental health?

Symptoms of mental health disorders vary depending on the type and severity of the condition. The following is a list of general symptoms that may suggest a mental health disorder, particularly when multiple symptoms are expressed at once.

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

 

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

What can I expect when I or someone I know are in treatment?

Beginning treatment is a big step for individuals and families and can be very overwhelming. It is important to continue involvement in the treatment process as much as possible. Some questions you will need to have answered include:

  • What is known about the cause of this particular illness?
  • Are there other diagnoses where these symptoms are common?
  • Do you normally include a physical or neurological examination?
  • Are there any additional tests or exams that you would recommend at this point?
  • Would you advise an independent opinion from another psychiatrist at this point?
  • What program of treatment is the most helpful with this diagnosis?
  • Will this program involve services by other specialists? If so, who will be responsible for coordinating these services?
  • What do you see as the family’s role in this program of treatment?
  • How much access will the family have to the individuals who are providing the treatment?
  • What medications are generally used with this diagnosis? What is the biological effect of this medication, and what do you expect it to accomplish? What are the risks associated with the medication? How soon will we be able to tell if the medication is effective, and how will we know?
  • How much experience do you have in treating individuals with this illness?
  • What can I do to help you in the treatment?

If I feel better after taking medication, does this mean I am cured and can stop taking it?

It is not uncommon for people to stop taking their medication when they feel their symptoms are under control. Others may choose to stop taking their medication because of its side effects, without realizing that most side effects can be effectively managed. While it may seem reasonable to stop taking the medication, the problem is that most often, the symptoms will return. If you or your child is taking medication, it is very important that you work together with your doctor before making decisions about any changes in your treatment.

 

Another problem with stopping medication, particularly for stopping it abruptly, is that you may develop withdrawal symptoms that can be very unpleasant. If you and your doctor feel a trial off your medicine is a good idea, it is necessary to slowly decrease the dosage of medications so that these symptoms don’t occur.

 

It is important that your doctor and pharmacist work together to make sure your medications are working safely and effectively. You should talk with them about how you are doing and if there are side effects that make you unwilling to continue treatment. They will work with you to develop strategies for minimizing these side effects, or will create a plan for switching to a different treatment that will be a better fit.