If you had to guess, what illness would you say is more prevalent in developed countries -- cancer or maybe heart disease? Nope. Believe it or not, it's mental illness.
Like cancer and heart disease, mental illness is a medical condition, and those who have mental disorders struggle to cope with everyday life because of their altered moods, thinking or behavior. Fortunately, treatment for mental illness or mental disorders can lead to recovery; and although treatment may include medication, it ideally also includes psychosocial therapies and support.
Mental disorders do not discriminate by age, race or ethnicity, and they often strike when a person is in the prime of his or her life. The spectrum of disorders runs from mild to severe and, like any medical condition, many factors can trigger illness [source: Herrman, Saxena, Moodie].
In recent years, greater attention has been paid to mental disorders because of the burden they place on the public health system and their relationship to high-risk behaviors such as alcohol, tobacco and substance abuse. Mental disorders are recognized as a global problem, but tracking who suffers from different mental illnesses varies around the world. The United States uses several systems to monitor symptoms and classify illness. So it's hard to say precisely which disorders are diagnosed most, but what's important is that efforts are under way to collect data that will help provide better understanding and care for those who have mental illness [source: Freeman]. Read on so you can learn more about 10 of the most common mental illnesses.
10. Autism Spectrum Disorders
When Quentin was 12 months old, his parents noticed that he didn't make eye contact and seemed to reach developmental milestones later than their older child had. He was not speaking by age two and his nonverbal communication skills lagged behind those of his peers. An otherwise healthy child, Quentin's mannerisms, such as rocking himself and stroking toys instead of playing with them, had become more pronounced. He was evaluated and diagnosed with autistic disorder, one of three general disorders on the autism spectrum, the other two being Asperger syndrome and atypical autism (pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified).
Genes, other medical conditions and environment may place certain children at risk for autism spectrum disorders, which are more common among boys than girls. Autism spectrum disorder starts when children are very young and is difficult to diagnose because there is no medical or blood test to confirm it. Similarly, there is no cure. However, early detection and intervention through behavioral and educational therapy that is based on a child's individual challenges can lead to a functional life [source: CDC].
Focused psychotherapy helped Quentin learn proper social interaction and he successfully completed high school. With continued support from his family and therapists, his family anticipates he will be able to live as an independent adult [source: Volkmar].
Imagine the torment of hearing voices that other people don't hear or believing that people are invading your thoughts and even plotting to harm you. For a person with schizophrenia, these uncontrollable experiences can be disabling.
Despite being one of four children, Lyonel was a loner. As a teen, he expressed interest in magic and the occult and later studied the Bible. At age 24, he developed a crush on a girl named Mary, but after she turned him down for a date, he could not let it go. Months later, he became convinced she was thinking about him, and that something was keeping them apart. He could not get her out of his mind and felt his thoughts were so loud that everyone could hear them. Unable to work, he spent months brooding about Mary and began to imagine people were sending him signals to let him know she was near. When he went to confront her about his feelings, he heard a woman's voice in the backseat directing and encouraging him.
Lyonel was diagnosed with schizophrenia because he had the required two of five symptoms needed for a diagnosis. The symptoms are:
- Disorganized speech
- Disorganized or catatonic behavior
- Emotional flatness
Schizophrenia, a mysterious illness that usually presents itself in persons aged 16 to 30, affects men and women equally. The cause is unknown, so doctors try to control patients' symptoms with antipsychotic drugs and psychosocial therapies, which teach coping mechanisms [source: NIMH].
8. Bipolar Disorder
Bipolar disorder is one of several mood disorders that leaves people with emotions swinging from abnormally high (manic) to dangerously low (depressive). Unlike mood shifts in a person without a mood disorder, the extremes are so severe that they can damage relationships, result in poor performance in school or work and possibly lead to suicide.
During Elizabeth's pregnancy at age 38, she became increasingly sad, to the point that she lost her appetite and spent most of her days in bed. She was unable to keep up with her household and family business duties and days before her baby was due, she revealed that she didn't think she'd survive childbirth. After the baby was born, her mood immediately changed from depressed to festive. She ignored the baby and went on buying binges. When asked how she felt, she reported "ecstatic" and "sexy" [source: Morrison].
Most people with bipolar disorder are diagnosed by age 25, but often this illness is not easy to spot. Elizabeth's life-long illness was most likely exposed by her pregnancy, during which she exhibited the classic symptoms of changes in energy, activity and sleep. Because blood tests and brain scans can't detect bipolar disorder, mental health professionals rely on the patient's mental health history and an evaluation to make a diagnosis. People with bipolar disorder can lead a normal life with long-term treatment using both mood-stabilizing medications and psychotherapy to control their symptoms and reduce the chance of future episodes [source: NIMH].
7. Panic Disorder
Rapid heart beat. Shortness of breath. Nausea and dizziness. Weakness. Sweatiness. Tingling hands. Chest pains. Smothering sensations. Loss of control. Terror.
Panic attacks are a very real, physical manifestation of fear. During a severe panic attack, you might believe that you're having a heart attack, losing your mind or even about to die. Furthermore, because an attack may occur at any time, there is the additional fear of when the next one will hit.
Panic attacks are somewhat common, and affect more women than men; they're classified as a disorder when they occur repeatedly and are disabling. Many people begin having panic attacks in adolescence or early adulthood; the condition seems to be inherited. Without help, people who experience panic attacks may develop agoraphobia, a fear of open spaces. People with agoraphobia have an intense fear of situations or places from which they cannot escape or find help, and as a result avoid these situations completely. One-third of people with agoraphobia become housebound.
The good news is that panic disorder is the most treatable anxiety disorder; patients receive a combination of medications and psychotherapy [source: NIMH].
6. Anxiety Disorders
Anxiety disorders include an alphabet soup of names: OCD, PTSD and GAD.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a combination of recurring thoughts (obsessions) and repeated actions (compulsions) that a person performs with the belief that the behavior gives him or her control. For example, a woman obsessed with cleanliness may feel the need to wash her hands over and over. The unfortunate result is that the behavior ends up controlling the person. Some people with OCD develop complex daily rituals that take hours to complete.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) occurs after a terrifying experience in which someone felt the threat of physical injury or fear, horror or helplessness. It occurs most often in survivors of combat, but is also found in survivors of natural and man-made disasters.PTSD does not always occur immediately; those who have it repeatedly relive the traumatic experience in their minds.
General anxiety disorder (GAD) is the diagnosis given to a person who worries or stresses for no apparent reason for a period of at least six months. People with GAD are overly concerned with everyday worries and often anticipate disaster. When their anxiety level elevates, they're a "nervous wreck" and experience physical symptoms such as muscle tension, sweating, trembling and nausea.
Many people who suffer from anxiety disorders self-medicate with alcohol and drugs. However, they should seek professional help because like panic disorder, these anxiety disorders can be treated with medication and therapy [source: NIMH].
Anxiety disorder also comes in the form of phobias or fears. Many people fear everything from public speaking to snakes, but when it interrupts your daily activities or causes severe physical symptoms, it's a problem.
Social anxiety disorder, or social phobia, occurs when everyday situations cause someone to become self-conscious and anxious. Social phobia usually begins in the teen years when adolescents worry about peers watching and judging their behavior. It becomes a problem or disorder when they spend days and weeks worrying about a situation. To make matters worse, natural physical responses, such as blushing or sweating, can just elevate their fear [source: NIMH].
As with panic disorder, social anxiety can lead to agoraphobia, sometimes causing the sufferers to become so overwhelmed with fear that they avoid leaving their homes or participating in activities.
Finally, specific phobia refers to patients developing a fear of particular objects or situations, such as thunderstorms (astraphobia), heights (acrophobia), animals (agrizoophobia), or blood (hemophobia). Panic and nervousness set in when exposed to the fear-inducing thing, which may result in vomiting, choking or fainting. Medication and therapy may help relieve the anxiety and allow patients to function normally [source: Morrison].
4. Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder
Do you remember the 4th grade classmate who could never sit still, was always talking or interrupting, would forget his homework and seemed to lose everything? Chances are that child suffered from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and if untreated may still be affected as an adult.
ADHD, a common childhood disorder, usually is diagnosed in extremely active children who have difficulty staying focused and controlling their behavior. Genetics put some children at risk, but experts believe that brain injury, environmental exposure (lead), alcohol and tobacco use during pregnancy, premature delivery and low birth weight also may cause ADHD[source: CDC].
To diagnose and subsequently treat ADHD, medical health professionals assess the child's physical health and cognition to rule out other conditions, such as hearing loss or poor vision. Observations and reports from teachers and family members help a clinician establish a diagnosis and start treatment. Many children receive medication and behavioral therapy.
Most children with ADHD outgrow or learn to manage many of the symptoms that have been roadblocks in school. However, some continue to have the condition as adults, making their personal and professional lives difficult to manage. As in adolescence, medication, therapy and learned organizational skills can help manage the disorder [source: NIMH].
3. Eating Disorders
Marlene, a statuesque high school student, weighed 80 pounds when she was admitted to the hospital. She was dressed for a workout and spent part of the intake interview doing deep-knee bends as she explained that her father had a drinking problem and her mother was severely overweight. Marlene was in 10th grade when she became obsessed with her weight and food. Over the next two years, she pretended to eat, exercised constantly and used laxatives to shed what she believed was unattractive excess weight [source: Morrison].
Marlene suffered from anorexia, one of three eating disorders most often diagnosed in girls and women. Anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge-eating disorder are marked by extreme behaviors, which usually are rooted in complex biological and psychological causes, including depression and anxiety.
When a person with anorexia looks in the mirror, he or she sees an overweight reflection, not the malnourished body that actually is reflected. The failure to eat and obsession with food may lead people with anorexia to numerous potentially fatal health issues, including malnutrition.
Bulimia nervosa is the condition named for people who consume large quantities of food and then, regretting the behavior and lack of control, purge themselves by vomiting, using laxatives, fasting or exercising obsessively. Binge eaters, on the other hand, are caught in a cycle of excessive overeating, which leads to shame, further overeating and excessive weight gain.
Eating disorders are treatable; people with them benefit from personalized treatment plans that offer medication, nutrition counseling and individual and group therapy [source: NIMH].
2. Personality Disorders
Humans have a collection of personality traits that are based on our experiences and influence our interactions, behavior and how we think. These traits are deeply rooted in our culture and how we're expected to behave. Personality traits usually are somewhat fluid too; we're all different and each of us has a few moods and sides to our personalities. People with personality disorders have rigid traits that can impair their ability to function in everyday situations.
Among the most common personality disorders are:
- Antisocial personality disorder refers to those people who do not follow the rules of society and have little regard for the feelings of others. They often display criminal behavior and show no remorse.
- Avoidant personality disorder is a diagnosis given to people who are anxious and often over-controlled, resulting in a fear of criticism and hesitation to become involved with others.
- Borderline personality disorder causes people to be unstable and impulsive, resulting in suicide threats or attempts. They fear abandonment and find it difficult to maintain stable relationships.
Diagnosing and treating personality disorders is difficult because so many biological and environmental factors may play a role in creating the problem. Furthermore, many people who struggle with personality disorders also have co-occurring mental disorders, including anxiety disorders, ADHD, depression and bipolar disorder, or they may abuse drugs or alcohol [source: NIMH].
1. Mood Disorders
Moods are sustained emotions, which color the way we view life; when someone has a mood disorder, the picture usually is not rosy. People with these disorders have moods that go beyond feeling "blue." Mood disorders can be found across all races and social classes, but are more common among single people without a "significant other."
Experts find that although mood disorders have varying degrees of severity -- which makes them difficult to diagnose -- at the same time, they are the most frequently diagnosed mental disorders. In addition to bipolar disorder, mood disorders include major depressive disorder and dysthymic disorder.
Major depression, characterized by persistently sad, hopeless and worthless feelings, is a debilitating illness that usually reoccurs throughout a person's lifetime. The symptoms of fatigue, lack of focus, changes in appetite and thoughts of suicide interfere with everyday functioning. People with dysthymia have symptoms that are less severe but longer lasting -- for periods of at least two years. Other forms of depression include seasonal affective disorder and postpartum depression.
Depression is a brain disorder most likely caused by a combination of genetics, environmental, biological and psychological factors. Fortunately, depression can be treated and the best results are achieved when treatment begins as soon as depression is diagnosed. Most people with mood disorders benefit from a regimen of antidepressant medications and psychotherapy. The key to successful treatment of mood disorders and prevention of future episodes is to continue taking medications and seeking help [source: NIMH].
For more information on mental disorders, visit the links on the following page.
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- Volkmar, Fred, MD. "A Ball of String: Comprehensive Treatment of Autistic Disorder." DSM-IV-TR Casebook Volume 2 Experts Tell How They Treated Their Own Patients. American Psychiatric Publishing, Inc. 2006.
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