What is mental illness?

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) has a useful fact sheet about mental illness. NAMI defines mental illnesses as “medical conditions that disrupt a person’s thinking, feeling, mood, ability to relate to others and daily functioning.”

Mental illness includes a wide variety of mental, emotional, relational and behavioral disorders, including mood and anxiety disorders, delusional and psychotic disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, some sexual disorders, eating disorders, addictions, learning disorders, cognitive disorders, and personality disorders. Different illnesses have distinct patterns of associated behaviors and clusters of symptoms that are used to define them. While specific symptoms and syndromes may vary, one key component to most mental disorders is that they cause marked distress and impaired functioning in work, school, or other areas of functioning, such as interpersonal relationships.

Thinkers, writers, philosophers, and everyday people have observed and described human nature for centuries, yet psychology is a relatively young field of research and scientific study. Historically, it has been difficult to clearly identify mental illness as illness because the areas of life it affects – conscious thought, perception, language, cognition, emotion, behavior, relationships, even spirituality – are normally considered to be under one’s control. In addition, prior to modern technologies such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), it was impossible to look at how the living brain functions. In most cases, the brain is still a “black box” and mental functioning must be inferred through outward behavior. As a result, mental illness was historically attributed to things like spiritual possession, witchcraft/curses, or divine punishment. Even now, many people believe that mental illness is “caused” by (or indicative of) bad parenting, unresolved sins, character defects, or moral weakness.

Our knowledge, understanding, and definitions of mental illness continue to be fluid. The line between mental health and mental illness is both culturally and individually subjective. One’s experience of mental health is affected by the confluence of individual biology, genetics, neurological structure and functioning, hormone levels, brain chemistry, environmental and cultural influences, life experiences, social skills, interpersonal relationships, and physical health. Research continues on the prevalence, causes, effects, identification, prevention, and treatment of mental illnesses.

Mental illness is real. Some conditions are temporary, others are chronic; yet most are treatable and can be managed through a combination of medication, individual talk therapy, group therapy, social support and services, skill training and development, stress management, healthy habits, and meaningful activity. If you or a loved one is suffering from a mental illness, help is available.

For more information, see NIMH, NAMI, or this Wikipedia article.

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