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What You Need to Know About Mental Illness     

Many people with a mental health disorder don't get treatment. They may think it won't help. Or they don't recognize the symptoms. Others may not be able to afford or access treatment. The social stigma of mental illness also stops people from getting help. This often means worsening symptoms. In some cases, it leads to suicide.

Real illness

Mental illnesses are as real as diseases such as heart disease or cancer. Understanding that mental illness isn't a weakness or a character flaw helps people get help.

Some of the more common mental health problems include:

  • Depression

  • Anxiety and panic disorders

  • Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

  • Bipolar disorder

  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)

  • Substance abuse

  • Schizophrenia

Mental health problems may be passed down through the family. Or they can occur because of abnormal brain chemistry, substance abuse, or in response to traumatic events or an abusive environment. In other words, a mental illness isn't the fault of the person who's suffering.


Learning symptoms of mental illness can help you recognize when you or a loved one need help. Symptoms include:

  • Feeling sad, burned out, or useless. Everyone feels down from time to time. But if that emotion continues for more than 2 weeks and you also have feelings of guilt and hopelessness, it could mean you're depressed. Severe and persistent symptoms are what distinguish depression from normal sadness and mood changes. Other symptoms of depression are sleep problems, loss of self-esteem, and not enjoying things you once did.

  • Ongoing worries and fears. People who have unrealistic or extreme anxiety and worry about life circumstances could have an anxiety disorder. 

  • Sudden, intense anxiety, fear, or panic. Heart palpitations, chest pain, feeling smothered, dizziness, trembling, and faintness can be signs of panic disorder.

  • Unexplained physical symptoms. Ongoing physical symptoms can signal emotional upset or stress overload. These symptoms include headaches, stomachaches, and chronic pain (especially backaches) with no clear cause.

  • Chronic fatigue and lack of energy. When your body can't handle emotional overload, it can shut down. Feeling too tired to do the things you used to love can be a sign of emotional distress or depression.

  • Staying away from other people. Spending all your time alone instead of with friends or family could be a sign of stress overload, depression, anxiety, or a social phobia.

  • Intense mood fluctuations. Behavior that varies that between high energy, reduced need for sleep, and loss of touch with reality, to depressive behaviors such as sadness, low energy, low motivation, and loss of interest in daily activities could be a sign of bipolar disorder. During the high energy period, or mania, high-risk behaviors, such as gambling, overspending, drug abuse, and high-risk sexual activity can occur. Suicidal thoughts can also occur. The length of time between, and the seriousness of the cycles, varies by individual.

Other symptoms of mental health problems include:

  • Ongoing nightmares

  • Flashbacks

  • Dramatic changes in sleep or weight

  • Substance abuse, including alcohol

People who have emotional disorders don't have to suffer alone, they can get effective help. It's very possible to heal the mind with therapy and support services. Don't be afraid to ask for help. It's a sign of strength, not weakness.

Online Medical Reviewer: L Renee Watson MSN RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Marianne Fraser MSN RN
Online Medical Reviewer: Paul Ballas MD
Date Last Reviewed: 6/1/2021
© 2000-2021 The StayWell Company, LLC. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.
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