Psychological or Mental illness refers to a wide range of psychological health conditions – disorders that affect mood, thinking and behavior. Examples of psychological illness include depression, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, eating disorders and addictive behaviors.
Many people have psychological health concerns from time to time. But a psychological health concern becomes a psychological illness when ongoing signs and symptoms cause frequent distress and affect your ability to function.
A psychological illness can make you miserable and can cause problems in your daily life, such as at school or work or in relationships. In most cases, symptoms can be managed with a combination of medications and psychotherapy.
The American Psychiatric Association (DSM-V, 2014) defines:
“A mental disorder is a syndrome characterized by clinically significant disturbance in an individual’s cognition, emotion regulation, or behavior that reflects a dysfunction in the psychological, biological, or developmental processes underlying mental functioning. Mental disorders are usually associated with significant distress in social, occupational, or other important activities. An expectable or culturally approved response to a common stressor or loss, such as the death of a loved one, is not a mental disorder. Socially deviant behavior (e.g., political, religious, or sexual) and conflicts that are primarily between the individual and society are not mental disorders unless the deviance or conflict results from a dysfunction in the individual, as described above.”
So, what does this mean? It means that, If you are having problems with your thinking, emotions, or behavior, and those problems cause you significant discomfort or impair to some degree your ability to functioning at work or school or in social situations, then you may have a psychological disorder.
A psychological disorder is a syndrome, a somewhat unique cluster of symptoms often occurring at the same time that causes distress and affects (to some degree) ability to function.
Symptoms and Signs
Symptoms and signs of psychological illness can vary, depending on the disorder, circumstances and other factors. Psychological illness symptoms can affect emotions, thoughts and behaviors.
Examples of signs and symptoms include:
- Feeling sad or down
- Confused thinking or reduced ability to concentrate
- Excessive fears or worries, or extreme feelings of guilt
- Extreme mood changes of highs and lows
- Withdrawal from friends and activities
- Impulsive or out of control behavior
- Significant tiredness, low energy or problems sleeping
- Detachment from reality (delusions), paranoia or hallucinations
- Inability to cope with daily problems or stress
- Trouble understanding and relating to situations and to people
- Alcohol or drug abuse
- Major changes in eating habits
- Sex drive changes
- Excessive anger, hostility or violence
- Suicidal thinking
- Sometimes symptoms of a psychological disorder appear as physical problems, such as stomach pain, back pain, headache, or other unexplained aches and pains
When to see a professional
If you have any signs or symptoms of a psychological illness, see a clinical therapist or psychiatric specialist. Most psychological illnesses don’t improve on their own, and if untreated, a psychological illness may get worse over time and cause serious problems.
If you have suicidal thoughts
Suicidal thoughts and behavior are common with some psychological illnesses. If you think you may hurt yourself or attempt suicide, get help right away:
- Call 911 or your local emergency number immediately
- Call your psychological health specialist
- Call a suicide hotline number, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255
- Reach out to a close friend or loved one
Suicidal thinking doesn’t get better on its own — so get help.
Helping a loved one
If your loved one shows signs of psychological illness, have an open and honest discussion with him or her about your concerns. You may not be able to force someone to get professional care, but you can offer encouragement and support. You can also help your loved one find a qualified psychological health provider and make an appointment. You may even be able to go along to the appointment.
If your loved one has done self-harm or is considering doing so, take the person to the hospital or call for emergency help.
Psychological illnesses, in general, are thought to be caused by a variety of genetic, biological and environmental factors:
Inherited traits. Psychological illness is more common in people whose blood relatives also have a psychological illness. Certain genes may increase your risk of developing a psychological illness, and your life situation may trigger it.
Environmental exposures. Chronic poverty, stressful or abusive home life, legal problems, exposure to high stress or traumas, modeling maladaptive behavior. Exposure to environmental stressors, inflammatory conditions, toxins, alcohol or drugs while in the womb can sometimes be linked to psychological illness.
Brain chemistry. Neurotransmitters are naturally occurring brain chemicals that carry signals to other parts of your brain and body. When the neural networks involving these chemicals are impaired, the function of nerve receptors and nerve systems change, leading to symptoms of psychological illness.
Certain factors may increase your risk of developing psychological health problems, including:
- Having a blood relative, such as a parent or sibling, with a mental illness
- Stressful life situations, such as financial problems, a loved one’s death or a divorce
- An ongoing (chronic) medical condition, such as diabetes
- Brain damage as a result of a serious injury (traumatic brain injury), such as a violent blow to the head
- Traumatic experiences, such as military combat or being assaulted
- Use of alcohol or recreational drugs
- Being abused or neglected as a child
- Having few friends or few healthy relationships
- A previous psychological illness
Psychological illness is common. About 1 in 5 adults has a psychological illness in any given year. Psychological illness can begin at any age, from childhood through later adult years, but most begin earlier in life.
The effects of psychological illness can be temporary or long lasting. You also can have more than one psychological health disorder at the same time. For example, you may have depression and a substance use disorder.