What does it mean to have a mental illness?

Mental illnesses are medical conditions that disrupt a person’s thinking, feeling, mood, ability to relate to others, and daily functioning. Just as diabetes is a disorder of the pancreas, mental illnesses are medical conditions that often result in a diminished capacity for coping with the ordinary demands of life. Some of the more common disorders are depression, bipolar disorder, dementia, schizophrenia and anxiety disorders. Symptoms may include changes in mood, personality, personal habits and/or social withdrawal. When these occur in children under 18, they are referred to as serious emotional disturbances (SEDs). Mental illnesses can affect persons of any age, race, religion, or income. Here are some important facts about mental illness and recovery:

  • Mental illnesses are biologically based brain disorders. They cannot be overcome through “will power” and are not related to a person’s “character” or intelligence.
  • Mental disorders fall along a continuum of severity. Even though mental disorders are widespread in the population, the main burden of illness is concentrated in a much smaller proportion — about 6 percent, or 1 in 17 Americans — who suffer from a serious mental illness. It is estimated that mental illness affects 1 in 4 families in America.
  • Mental illnesses usually strike individuals in the prime of their lives, often during adolescence and young adulthood. All ages are susceptible, but the young and the old are especially vulnerable.
  • The best treatments for serious mental illnesses today are highly effective; between 70 and 90 percent of individuals have significant reduction of symptoms and improved quality of life with a combination of pharmacological and psychosocial treatments and supports.
  • With appropriate effective medication and a wide range of services tailored to their needs, most people who live with serious mental illnesses can significantly reduce the impact of their illness and find a satisfying measure of achievement and independence. A key concept is to develop expertise in developing strategies to manage the illness process.
  • Early identification and treatment is of vital importance. By ensuring access to the treatment and recovery supports that are proven effective, recovery is accelerated and the further harm related to the course of illness is minimized.

Source: National Alliance on Mental Illness (N)

Does mental health treatment work?

YES: The best treatments for serious mental illnesses today are highly effective. Between 70 and 90 percent of individuals have a significant reduction of symptoms and improved quality of life with a combination of pharmacological and psychosocial treatments and supports.

For children and adolescents, research shows improved functioning and school performance, improved quality of life and reduction in violence and self-destructive behaviors. Treatment also decreased recidivism rates for juveniles previously incarcerated in correctional facilities.

What causes mental illness?

Although the exact cause of most mental illnesses is not known, it is becoming clear through research that many of these conditions are caused by a combination of biological, psychological, and environmental factors.

Once someone has had a mental illness can they ever get better again?

Remember, most people with mental illnesses who are diagnosed and treated will respond well and live productive lives. Many never have the same problem again, although some will experience a return of symptoms. The important thing is that there is a range of effective treatments for just about every mental disorder.

How common is mental illness?

Mental illnesses are very common; in fact, they are more common than cancer, diabetes or heart disease. According to the U.S. Surgeon General, an estimated 23% of American adults (those ages 18 and older) or about 44 million people, and about 20% of American children suffer from a mental disorder during a given year. Even though mental disorders are widespread in the population, the main burden of illness is concentrated in a much smaller proportion, about 6 percent, or 1 in 17 Americans, who suffer from a serious mental illness (one that significantly interferes with functioning). It is estimated that mental illness affects 1 in 4 families in America.

What are some of the warning signs of mental illness?

Symptoms of mental disorders vary depending on the type and severity of the condition. Some general symptoms that may suggest a mental disorder include:

In 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

In 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 is the difference between the various mental health professionals?

There are many types of mental health professionals. The variety of providers and their services may be confusing. Each have various levels of education, training, and may have different areas of expertise. Finding the professional who best fits your needs may require some research.

Click here to learn about the different types of mental health professional.

How can I find a mental health professional right for child, family or myself?

Feeling comfortable with the professional you or your child is working with is critical to the success of your treatment. Finding the professional who best fits your needs may require some research.

To help you select a therapist that is right for you, SAMHSA, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, issued the following guidelines:

  • See your primary care physician to rule out a medical cause of your problems. If your thyroid is “sluggish,” for example, your symptoms (such as loss of appetite and fatigue) could be mistaken for depression.
  • After you know your problems are not caused by a medical condition, find out what the mental health coverage is under your insurance policy or through Medicaid/Medicare.
  • Get two or three referrals before making an appointment. Specify age, sex, race, or religious background if those characteristics are important to you.
  • Call to find out about appointment availability, location, and fees. Ask the receptionist:
  • Does the mental health professional offer a sliding-scale fee based on income?
  • Does he/she accept your health insurance or Medicaid/Medicare?
  • Make sure the therapist has experience helping people whose problems are similar to yours. You may want to ask the receptionist about the therapist’s expertise, education, and number of years in practice.
  • If you are satisfied with the answers, make an appointment.
  • During your first visit, describe those feelings and problems that led you to seek help. Find out:
    • What kind of therapy/treatment program he or she recommends;
    • Whether it has proven effective for dealing with problems such as yours;
    • What the benefits and side effects are;
    • How much therapy the mental health professional recommends; and
    • Whether he or she is willing to coordinate your care with another practitioner if you are personally interested in exploring credible alternative therapies, such as acupuncture.
  • Be sure the psychotherapist does not take a “cookie cutter” approach to your treatment. What works for one person does not necessarily work for another. Different psychotherapies and medications are tailored to meet specific needs.
  • Although the role of a therapist is not to be a friend, rapport is a critical element of successful therapy. After your initial visit, take some time to explore how you felt about the therapist.

If the answers to these questions and others you come up with are “yes,” schedule another appointment to begin the process of working together to understand and overcome your problems. If the answers to most of these questions are “no,” call another mental health professional from your referral list and schedule another appointment.

Do I need a referral from my doctor to begin therapy?

No. However, if you are utilizing an insurance plan that requires one, an authorization may be necessary. We encourage you to call regarding any questions and BMH can assist you with in getting started.

Why does someone with mental illness need to have a routine?

Mental illness can often disrupt a person’s life by hindering that person’s ability to focus on and complete tasks that they otherwise would be able to complete. Establishing a productive daily routine can help to normalize that person’s daily life and having a routine most often contributes to increased life satisfaction that comes with personal accomplishment (in the human population as a whole, not just those living with mental illness).

How do I know if my child’s problems are serious?

Not every problem is serious. In fact, many everyday stresses can cause changes in your child’s behavior. For example, the birth of a sibling may cause a child to temporarily act much younger than he or she is. It is important to be able to tell the difference between typical behavior changes and those associated with more serious problems. Pay special attention to behaviors that include:

    • Problems across a variety of settings, such as at school, at home, or with peers
    • Changes in appetite or sleep
    • Social withdrawal, or fearful behavior toward things your child normally is not afraid of
    • Returning to behaviors more common in younger children, such as bed- wetting, for a long time
    • Signs of being upset, such as sadness or tearfulness
    • Signs of self-destructive behavior, such as head banging, or a tendency to get hurt often
    • Repeated thoughts of death.