Mental illness refers to a wide range of mental health conditions — disorders that affect your mood, thinking and behavior. Examples of mental illness include depression, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, eating disorders and addictive behaviors.
Many people have mental health concerns from time to time. But a mental health concern becomes a mental illness when ongoing signs and symptoms cause frequent stress and affect your ability to function.
A mental illness can make you miserable and can cause problems in your daily life, such as at school or work or in relationships. In most cases, symptoms can be managed with a combination of medications and talk therapy (psychotherapy).
Signs and symptoms of mental illness can vary, depending on the disorder, circumstances and other factors. Mental illness symptoms can affect emotions, thoughts and behaviors.
Examples of signs and symptoms include:
Sometimes symptoms of a mental health disorder appear as physical problems, such as stomach pain, back pain, headache, or other unexplained aches and pains.
Mental illnesses, in general, are thought to be caused by a variety of genetic and environmental factors:
Certain factors may increase your risk of developing mental health problems, including:
Mental illness is common. About 1 in 5 adults has a mental illness in any given year. Mental illness can begin at any age, from childhood through later adult years, but most begin earlier in life.
The effects of mental illness can be temporary or long lasting. You also can have more than one mental health disorder at the same time. For example, you may have depression and a substance use disorder.
Mental illness is a leading cause of disability. Untreated mental illness can cause severe emotional, behavioral and physical health problems. Complications sometimes linked to mental illness include:
If you have any signs or symptoms of a mental illness, see your primary care provider or mental health specialist. Most mental illnesses don’t improve on their own, and if untreated, a mental illness may get worse over time and cause serious problems.
If you have suicidal thoughts
Suicidal thoughts and behavior are common with some mental illnesses. If you think you may hurt yourself or attempt suicide, get help right away:
Helping a loved one
If your loved one shows signs of mental illness, have an open and honest discussion with him or her about your concerns. You may not be able to force someone to get professional care, but you can offer encouragement and support. You can also help your loved one find a qualified mental health provider and make an appointment. You may even be able to go along to the appointment.
If your loved one has done self-harm or is considering doing so, take the person to the hospital or call for emergency help.
What to Expect
Because appointments can be brief, and because there’s often a lot of ground to cover, it’s a good idea to be prepared. Here’s some information to help you get ready and what to expect from your doctor.
What you can do
Before your appointment, make a list of:
Questions to ask include:
Don’t hesitate to ask any other questions.
What to expect from your doctor
During your appointment, your doctor or mental health provider is likely to ask you several questions about your mood, thoughts and behavior, such as:
When did you first notice symptoms?
How is your daily life affected by your symptoms?
What treatment, if any, have you had for mental illness?
What have you tried on your own to feel better or control your symptoms?
What things make you feel worse?
Have family members or friends commented on your mood or behavior?
Do you have blood relatives with a mental illness?
What do you hope to gain from treatment?
What medications or over-the-counter herbs and supplements do you take?
Do you drink alcohol or use recreational drugs?
For more information about mental illness, visit our partners at the Mayo Clinic.
(Information sourced from the Mayo Clinic Mental Illness Information pages.)