Mental Illness Overview

What is mental health?

Mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. Mental health can affect the way we think, feel, act, make decisions, relate to others and handle stress. Mental health can vary over time and across circumstances. It is normal for everyone to have good and bad days. On good days, we may feel like we are flexible and can adapt to many different stressors and circumstances (like school, work, relationships, and how we feel about ourselves). However, on bad days, we may feel like we can’t cope with the stressors in our lives and feel overwhelmed and stuck. Sometimes, these variations in well-being can change from hour to hour or day to day, and can last for weeks, months, or longer.

What influences mental health?

Many factors influence our mental health, including:

  • Biological facts: physical health (or illness), genetics, neurotransmitters (brain chemistry), medications, alcohol and drugs, or sleep
  • Psychological factors: emotions and attitudes, learning, beliefs, and stress management
  • Social factors: family, peer relationships, culture, socioeconomics, and life experiences such as trauma, abuse and neglect

Mental illness can affect people from any religion, culture, economic background, or nationality. A number of factors are associated with mental illness. Some of these factors include:

Family history. Most illnesses, both mental and physical, have a genetic component. This means that if someone related to you has a mental health difficulty, then you may be at higher risk for a mental health problem.

Chemical imbalance. An imbalance of chemicals, called neurotransmitters, in the brain can cause a mental illness. Most drugs that are used to manage mental health illnesses try to correct this balance.

Stressful life events. Stress, like grief, anxiety, or experiencing violence or a traumatic event might trigger a mental health problem.

Drug use. Research shows that drug use can be associated with mental health problems. Sometimes the drug used can change the brain chemistry, making a person more likely to develop a mental illness. When using drugs as self-medication for a mental illness, this is called a co-occurring disorder or comorbidity. Although it is common for substance use disorders to occur with other mental illnesses, this does not mean that one is the cause of the other, even if one appeared first.

How common is mental illness?

Mental health problems are common in at least one out of every five people. In most cases, they are manageable and with the right kind of help, most people who experience these difficulties are able to live happy and successful lives.

Mental illness can cause people to think, act, and feel differently than they usually do. Some mental illnesses are more severe than others, and have more noticeable symptoms. For a person going through these difficulties, the different feelings are often scary.

Different Types of Mental Illnesses

Anxiety Disorder

Everyone experiences fear or anxiety every now and then, especially when they’re in new or unfamiliar situations. Check out the Anxiety and Anxiety Disorders: Types, Causes and Symptoms articles for more on how you can manage these feelings. People sometimes experience intense forms of anxiety that can prevent them from going about daily activities. These anxiety disorders can cause people to have sudden, unexplained panic attacks that can seem beyond their control. Other people become anxious about more specific things. This can lead to obsessive behavior, causing them to check and recheck things.

People, who experience high levels of anxiety, can learn to manage and reduce their anxiety levels. A form of therapy called cognitive behavioral therapy has been shown to be effective in managing anxiety. Stress management techniques and meditation can help people with anxiety disorders calm themselves and may enhance the effects of therapy. 

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder

When someone has problems concentrating and staying focused on tasks, he or she might have an attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), which usually starts in early childhood. People with ADHD can be easily distracted, excessively active, or have a tendency to daydream more than others.

People with ADHD find situations like paying attention in class particularly difficult, which can lead to conflicts with teachers or other authority figures. Because of the inability to concentrate, a person with ADHD might feel like they’re at odds with the world and people surrounding them.

People with ADHD may also have a lot of energy, which can be great for extracurricular activities. Young people with ADHD might need help from their family, friends, teachers, medical doctor, or mental health professional. After a medical assessment, medication can be helpful in managing symptoms.

Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar Disorder, also known as manic-depressive illness, is a serious mood disorder that causes shifts in a person’s mood, energy, and ability to function. The symptoms of bipolar disorder are more severe and are different from the normal ups and downs that everyone goes through.

Bipolar disorder causes dramatic mood swings from overly “high” and/or irritable to sad and hopeless, and then back again, often with periods of normal mood in between. The periods of highs and lows are called episodes of mania and depression. Severe changes in energy and behavior go along with these changes in mood.

Most people with bipolar disorder can achieve substantial stabilization of their mood swings and related symptoms over time with proper treatment. A strategy that combines medication and therapy is optimal for managing the disorder over time.

Depressive Disorder

When someone feels sad for a period of time longer than a couple of weeks, he or she might be depressed. People experiencing depression may show some or all of these symptoms:

  • Feelings of hopelessness or helplessness
  • Loss of interest in usual hobbies or activities
  • Lack of energy
  • Changes in sleeping and eating patterns
  • Crying a lot for no reason
  • Feeling anxious
  • Isolating themselves
  • Persistent feelings of sadness or emptiness

If you or a friend are showing these symptoms, then check out the Depression article for more information.

Eating Disorder

An eating disorder is an illness that causes someone to have a distorted view of his or her body, and a preoccupation with eating, food and weight. There are a number of different eating disorders, some of the more common of them being anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder.

Someone with an eating disorder should get help as soon as possible, as it is one of the most fatal mental illnesses. This help can come from a local doctor who then might refer him or her to a psychiatrist or other mental health professional.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is an anxiety disorder that is characterized by recurrent, unwanted thoughts (obsessions) and/or repetitive behaviors (compulsions). Repetitive behaviors, such as hand washing, counting, checking, or cleaning are often performed with the hope of preventing obsessive thoughts or making them go away. Performing these “rituals” only gives temporary relief and not performing them markedly increases anxiety. 

Panic Disorder

Panic disorder is another type of anxiety disorder that can cause someone to suddenly become frozen with fear. These panic attacks usually include sweating, dizziness, chest pain and difficulty breathing. Panic disorder can also prevent people from engaging in everyday activities, like going to the store or hanging out with friends. But on a positive note, panic disorder is one of the most treatable forms of anxiety disorder. For more information on panic attacks, including how to treat them, check out the Panic Attacks article.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a disorder that develops as a reaction to painful or shocking experiences, like sexual assault, violence, war, or a natural disaster. The effects of PTSD can prevent people from living their day-to-day lives as they normally would, like having trouble sleeping or concentrating. It can also cause people to become hypersensitive, jumpy and irritable, or emotionally distant, especially in situations that remind them of the original traumatic event. 


If someone becomes confused and appears out of touch with everyone else’s perception of the world, he or she might be experiencing a psychotic episode.

Some common symptoms of psychosis include:

  • Hallucinations such as hearing voices that might not be heard by anyone else
  • Having false beliefs, known as delusions
  • Paranoia
  • Strange and disorganized thinking
  • Unusual behavior
  • Difficulty speaking coherently

Some drugs such as hallucinogens, marijuana, and amphetamines can trigger a psychotic episode. Treatment of psychosis usually involves medication, and also achieving stability after a psychotic episode may take some time. If someone is experiencing a psychotic episode, it is important that he or she seek help from a doctor, psychiatrist, or psychologist. Friends and family can also provide support.


People with schizophrenia may experience psychosis. People with schizophrenia might have:

  • Confused speech patterns
  • Ongoing delusions, which means they might think things about themselves that no one else believes, like they are being watched or have particular powers or abilities they don’t actually have

Schizophrenia does not mean someone has more than one personality or “split personalities.” With medication and support, schizophrenia can be managed. Having the support of family and friends may also be very helpful. The earlier people can receive help for schizophrenia, the greater the chance of a better outcome.

Getting Help

If you’re experiencing any of the symptoms of these types or suspect that you might be dealing with one of these mental health issues, it’s important that you seek help. Your doctor is a good first step, and he or she might refer you to a mental health professional, such as a counselor, psychiatrist or psychologist. 

Information for this article was provided by:
Acknowledgements: This article was partially developed by youth and staff for 

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