Facts about Common Mental Illnesses
Mental health problems are health conditions involving changes in thinking,
mood, and/or behavior, and they are associated with distress or impaired
functioning. When they are more severe, they are called mental illnesses.
These include anxiety disorders, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, depressive
and other mood disorders, eating disorders, schizophrenia, and others. When
these occur in children under 18, they are referred to as serious emotional
Here are some brief descriptions of some of the most common mental illnesses.
Visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration Web site or the National Institutes of Mental Health Web site to learn more about any of these.
You may also be interested in Myths & Facts
Panic disorder affects about 2.4 million adult Americans
and is twice as common in women as in men. A panic attack is a feeling of
sudden terror that often occurs with a pounding heart, sweating, nausea,
chest pain or smothering sensations and feelings of faintness or dizziness.
Panic disorder frequently occurs in addition to other serious conditions
like depression, drug abuse, or alcoholism. If left untreated, it may lead
to a pattern of avoidance of places or situations where panic attacks have
occurred. In about a third of cases, the threat of a panic attack becomes
so overwhelming that a person may become isolated or housebound—a condition
known as agoraphobia. Panic disorder is one of the most treatable of the
anxiety disorders through medications or psychotherapy. Early treatment
of panic disorder can help prevent agoraphobia.
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
OCD affects about 3.3 million adult
Americans, and occurs equally in men and women. It usually appears in childhood.
Persons with OCD suffer from persistent and unwelcome anxious thoughts,
and the result is the need to perform rituals to maintain control. For
instance, a person obsessed with germs or dirt may wash his hands constantly.
Feelings of doubt can make another person check on things repeatedly. Others
may touch or count things or see repeated images that disturb them. These
thoughts are called obsessions, and the rituals that are performed to try
to prevent or get rid of them are called compulsions. Severe OCD can consume
so much of a person's time and concentration that it interferes with daily
life. OCD responds to treatment with medications or psychotherapy.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
PTSD affects about 5.2 million
adult Americans, but women are more likely than men to develop it. PTSD
occurs after an individual experiences a terrifying event such as an accident,
attack, military combat, or a natural disaster. With PTSD, individuals
relive their trauma through nightmares or disturbing thoughts throughout
that may make them feel detached, numb, irritable, or more aggressive.
Ordinary events can begin to cause flashbacks or terrifying thoughts. Some
people recover a few months after the event, but other people will suffer
lasting or chronic
PTSD. People with PTSD can be helped by medications and psychotherapy.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
GAD affects about 4 million adult
Americans and twice as many women as men. GAD is more than day-to-day
anxiety. It fills an individual with an overwhelming sense of worry and
tension. A person with GAD might always expect disaster to occur or worry
a lot about health, money, family, or work. These worries may bring physical
symptoms, especially fatigue, headaches, muscle tension, muscle aches,
trouble swallowing, trembling, twitching, irritability, sweating, and
hot flashes. People with GAD may feel lightheaded, out of breath, or
nauseous, or might have to go to the bathroom often. When people have
mild GAD, they may be able to function normally in social settings or
on the job. If GAD is severe, however, it can be very debilitating. GAD
is commonly treated with medications.
Social Anxiety Disorder
Social phobia affects about 5.3 million adult
Americans. Women and men are equally likely to develop social phobia,
which is characterized by an intense feeling of anxiety and dread about
social situations. These individuals suffer a persistent fear of being
watched and judged by others and being humiliated or embarrassed by their
own actions. Social phobia can be limited to only one type of situation—fear
of speaking in formal or informal situations, eating, drinking, or writing
in front of others—or a person may experience symptoms any time they
are around people. It may even keep people from going to work or school
on some days, as physical symptoms such as blushing, profuse sweating,
trembling, nausea, and difficulty talking often accompany the intense
anxiety. Social phobia can be treated successfully with medications or
Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
ADHD affects as many as 2 million
American children and is a diagnosis applied to children and adults who
consistently display certain characteristic behaviors over a period of
time. The most common behaviors fall into three categories: inattention,
and impulsivity. People who are inattentive have a hard time keeping
their mind on any one thing and may get bored with a task after only a few
People who are hyperactive always seem to be in motion. They can't sit
still and may dash around or talk incessantly. People who are overly impulsive
seem unable to curb their immediate reactions or think before they act.
Not everyone who is overly hyperactive, inattentive, or impulsive has
attention disorder. While the cause of ADHD is unknown, in the last decade,
scientists have learned much about the course of the disorder and are
now able to identify and treat children, adolescents, and adults who have it.
A variety of medications, behavior-changing therapies,
and educational options are already available to help people with ADHD focus
their attention, build self-esteem, and function in new ways.
About 18.8 million American adults experience a depressive illness that
involves the body, mood, and thoughts. Depression affects the way a person
eats and sleeps, the way one feels about oneself, and the way one thinks
about things. People with a depressive illness cannot just "pull
themselves together" and get better. Without treatment, symptoms can last for weeks, months, or years.
Depression can occur in three forms:
Major Depressive Disorder
Major depressive disorder involves a pervading sense of sadness
and/or loss of interest or pleasure in most activities that interferes
with the ability to work, study, sleep, eat, and enjoy once pleasurable
activities. This is a severe condition that can impact a person's thoughts,
sense of self worth, sleep, appetite, energy, and concentration. The condition can occur
as a single debilitating episode or as recurring episodes.
Dysthymia involves a chronic disturbance of mood in which an individual
often feels little satisfaction with activities of life most of the time.
Many people with dysthymia also experience major depressive episodes in their
lives leading to a recurrent depressive disorder. The average length of an
episode of dysthymia is about four years.
Bipolar Disorder, or manic-depressive illness, is a type of mood disorder
characterized by recurrent episodes of highs (mania) and lows (depression)
in mood. These episodes involve extreme changes in mood, energy, and behavior.
Manic symptoms include extreme irritable or elevated mood; a very inflated
sense of self-importance, risk behaviors, distractibility, increased energy,
and a decreased need for sleep.
The most important thing to do for people with depression is to help them
get an appropriate diagnosis and treatment. Treatment, usually in the form
of medication or psychotherapy, can help people who suffer from depression.
*Do not ignore remarks about suicide.
If someone tells you they are thinking about suicide, you should take their
distress seriously, listen, and help them get to a professional for evaluation
and treatment. If someone is in immediate danger of harming himself or herself,
do not leave the person alone. Take emergency steps to get help, such as
calling 911. You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
People with this disorder see themselves as
overweight despite their actual body weight. With this disorder, a person works
a weight lower than normal for their age and height. This is accompanied by an
intense fear of weight gain or looking fat. At times, a person can even deny
of their low body weight. Eating becomes an obsession and habits develop,
such as avoiding meals, picking out a few foods and eating these in small
quantities, or carefully weighing and portioning food. People with anorexia
may repeatedly check their body weight, and many engage in other techniques
to control their weight, like compulsive exercise or purging by vomiting
or using laxatives. Some people fully recover after a single episode; some have
a pattern of weight gain and relapse; and others experience a deteriorating
course of illness over many years.
Bulimia is characterized by episodes of binge
eating—eating an excessive amount of food at once with a sense of lack of control
during the episode—followed by behavior in order to prevent weight gain,
such as self-induced purging by vomiting or misuse of laxatives, diuretics,
or other medications; fasting; or excessive exercise. Because purging or
other compensatory behavior follows the binge-eating episodes, people with bulimia
usually weigh within the normal range for their age and height. However,
individuals with anorexia, they may fear gaining weight, desire to lose
weight, and feel dissatisfied with their bodies. People with bulimia often perform
the behaviors in secrecy, feeling disgusted and ashamed when they binge,
relieved once they purge.
More than 2 million Americans a year experience this disorder. It is equally common in men
and women. Schizophrenia tends to appear earlier in men than in women, showing up in their late
teens or early 20s as compared to their 20s or early 30s in women. Schizophrenia
often begins with an episode of psychotic symptoms like hearing voices
believing that others are trying to control or harm you. The delusions—
thoughts that are fragmented, bizarre, and have no basis in reality—may
occur along with hallucinations and disorganized speech and behavior, leaving
the individual frightened, anxious, and confused. There is no known single
cause of schizophrenia. Treatment may include medications and psychosocial
support like psychotherapy, self-help groups, and rehabilitation.