What is mental illness?

What is mental illness?

Page last updated: May 2007

About one in five Australians will experience a mental illness, and most of us will experience a mental health problem at some time in our lives.

Mental illness is a general term that refers to a group of illnesses, in the same way that heart disease refers to a group of illnesses and disorders affecting the heart.

A mental illness is a health problem that significantly affects how a person feels, thinks, behaves, and interacts with other people. It is diagnosed according to standardised criteria. The term mental disorder is also used to refer to these health problems.

A mental health problem also interferes with how a person thinks, feels, and behaves, but to a lesser extent than a mental illness.

Mental health problems are more common and include the mental ill health that can be experienced temporarily as a reaction to the stresses of life.

Mental health problems are less severe than mental illnesses, but may develop into a mental illness if they are not effectively dealt with.

Mental illnesses cause a great deal of suffering to those experiencing them,as well as their families and friends. Furthermore, these problems appear to be increasing. According to the World Health Organization, depression will be one of the biggest health problems worldwide by the year 2020.

Types of mental illness

Mental illnesses are of different types and degrees of severity. Some of the major types are depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, bipolar mood disorder,personality disorders, and eating disorders.

The most common mental illnesses are anxiety and depressive disorders. While everyone experiences strong feelings of tension, fear, or sadness at times, a mental illness is present when these feelings become so disturbing and overwhelming that people have great difficulty coping with day-to-day activities, such as work, enjoying leisure time, and maintaining relationships.

At their most extreme, people with a depressive disorder may not be able to get out of bed or care for themselves physically. People with certain types of anxiety disorder may not be able to leave the house, or may have compulsive rituals to help them alleviate their fears.

Less common are mental illnesses that may involve psychosis. These include schizophrenia and bipolar mood disorder. People experiencing an acute episode of psychosis lose touch with reality and perceive their world differently from normal. Their ability to make sense of thoughts, feelings, and the world around them is seriously affected.

A psychotic episode may involve delusions, such as false beliefs of persecution, guilt, or grandeur. It may involve hallucinations, where the person sees, hears, smells, or tastes things that are not there.

Psychotic episodes can be threatening and confusing to other people. Such behaviour is difficult to understand for people who are not familiar with it.

Treatment of mental illness

Most mental illnesses can be effectively treated. Recognising the early signs and symptoms of mental illness and accessing effective treatment early is important. The earlier treatment starts, the better the outcome.

Episodes of mental illness can come and go during different periods in people’s lives. Some people experience only one episode of illness and fully recover. For others, it recurs throughout their lives.

Effective treatments can include medication, cognitive and behavioural psychological therapies, psycho-social support, psychiatric disability rehabilitation,avoidance of risk factors such as harmful alcohol and other drug use, and learning self-management skills.

It is rarely possible for someone with a mental illness to make the symptoms go away just by strength of will. To suggest this is not helpful in any way.

People with a mental illness need the same understanding and support given to people with a physical illness. A mental illness is no different-it is not an illness for which anyone should be blamed.

People with mental illness may be at risk of harmful alcohol and other drug use. This makes treatment more complex, so that effectively managing alcohol and other drug use is important.

Risk of suicide is heightened for people with some mental illnesses, particularly soon after diagnosis or release from hospital.