Many adults see mental disorders as a rare affliction and something that would never happen to them, yet this is far from the truth. Mental disorders are extremely common and affect approximately 54 million Americans each year.
What is a mental disorder?
A mental disorder or mental illness is a disease that causes irregularities in the thoughts or behavior of the individual. These diseases can render ordinary errands or routines difficult, making life a harder process. Other possible symptoms include mood swings, uncharacteristic behavior or actions or social withdrawal.
There are over 200 kinds of mental disorder, ranging from the commonly referenced depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder and dementia to complex cases that require an extended level of care.
Mental health issues can occur naturally due to genetics or biochemistry, or may develop due to environmental circumstances, for example when dealing with a stressful situation or job. They often have physical effects in addition to psychological ones, similar to diseases such as cancer or diabetes.
Upon learning that you or a family member have a mental illness or disorder, it can be hard to adjust to, causing both physical and emotional strain, leaving you vulnerable to judgement, insensitivity or confusion regarding your options. It is therefore important to have hope and remember that help is available for those who require it.
Recognizing the Signs
Mental illnesses rarely just ‘crop up’ overnight. Usually, those close to the individual such as partners, parents, teachers or colleagues notice that something seems off with the person’s demeanor, feelings or behavior before the illness develops to its full extent.
Familiarizing yourself with the warning signs that may occur can help you catch a disorder and intervene before it worsens, which may even prevent a major case of illness completely.
Concern should be raised if an individual is experiencing several of the following:
- A loss of interest in social activities or events, or deliberately avoiding those they are usually happy to spend time with.
- A drop in performance at school or work. This may involve quitting extra-curricular activities, a slip in grades or losing the ability to successfully perform familiar tasks at work.
- Loss of concentration, memory loss or a ‘scattered’ trail of thought or speech.
- Increased sensitivity to light, sights, sound, scents or touch, or the withdrawal from over-stimulating or high sensory environments.
- Loss of desire to take part in activities, or an apathetic attitude towards them.
- A sense of unreality, or the feeling of being disassociated from oneself.
- Unusual beliefs that may not make sense, often with child-like, unrealistic aspects.
- Heightened anxiety or suspiciousness when regarding others.
- A distinctive feeling of nervousness.
- Out of character behavior.
- Significant changes in sleep pattern or appetite, or the neglect of personal hygiene.
- Mood swings or dramatic changes in feelings.
Simply experiencing one or two of the above symptoms is not enough to determine a mental illness, as many of them are experienced by adults on occasion due to difficult circumstances. Experiencing them infrequently does not indicate a mental illness, however, if an individual is experiencing several symptoms that are noticeably affecting their day to day life, this may be a sign of a serious problem.
If left untreated, symptoms may evolve into a psychotic episode, resulting in the development of delusions, hallucinations or other disordered thoughts. Unfortunately, psychotic episodes can develop progressively over time, meaning they are often left untreated for an extended time period.
Due to the stigma previously attached to mental illness, many sufferers avoid getting help due to denial, shame or fear. However, that stigma is fading and the help available today is better than ever before.
Early intervention can ensure psychotic episodes and the risk of hospitalization are prevented. The symptoms can still be worrying to experience, even if it seems unlikely the individual has a mental illness. It is therefore recommended to seek treatment as early as they are noticed, in order to put the patient’s mind at ease and determine whether they’re at risk. This can avoid many stressful or worrying situations that may occur if an underlying mental illness was left untreated.
The individual should seek a diagnostic evaluation by a trained psychiatric professional, educate themselves on mental illness and the symptoms to be aware of, seek support through counseling and agree to be monitored for conditions that may require further, more complex care.
Ideally, they’ll take the steps to involve their family and close friends in their treatment, which may be beneficial if the person has not come to terms with the fact they require treatment.
Both the individual and their family should familiarize themselves with the disease and understand what is happening in the brain, the significance of each symptom, how the illness develops and how it can be treated.
It’s also important to understand and accept that a family member’s mental illness can create stress for the family as a group, and that family counseling is readily available to come to terms with any problems that may arise. This is key to a powerful, comprehensive treatment that can prevent serious illness from occurring and ensure the whole family works together throughout the treatment period.
The affected person’s situation should be carefully assessed and assigned a personalized treatment plan to combat the disorder. Medication may be needed to help reduce some of the symptoms, in addition to regular therapy or counseling.
It’s important to remember that as with most medical illnesses, catching the disorder early can make a crucial difference when preventing a mild case from becoming a lifelong, debilitating psychiatric condition that could affect the individual’s quality of life.