Mental health covers all aspects of our emotional, psychological, and social fitness. If you have a healthy mental state, you’re better able to realize your full potential, cope with stress, be productive, and make significant contributions to your community.
What is mental health?
We sometimes equate mental health with the absence of mental illness, but it’s much bigger than that. The World Health Organization defines mental health as “a state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and can make a contribution to his or her community.”
Recognizing mental health as an overall state of wellbeing helps us see that it applies to everyone. Just as one can experience a physical health illness, one can also experience a mental illness, a mental health condition, or a mental health issue. If you have one of these, you may experience a range of physical and psychological symptoms.
When this occurs, there are usually multiple options for treatment and no single “right” approach. However, for most conditions, there are decades of research supporting the effectiveness of certain types of care. We’ll offer a high-level overview of the most common mental health conditions and information to help you recognize and address them so you can find the best path forward.
Common types of mental illness
Mental health isn’t simply an individual matter. It’s also a collective one. For example, social issues like unemployment, the ongoing pandemic, and violence or threats of violence all increase the risk of mental health conditions.
The prevalence of these conditions is so high that most people are impacted by it somehow. You might have mental health issues yourself or be close to someone who does. The following are some of the most prevalent forms of mental illness in the United States.
We define the mental health conditions below using categories from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5). This is the healthcare guide developed by the American Psychiatric Association that North American clinicians use to diagnose mental health disorders.
Anxiety disorders refer to mental health conditions characterized by fear, worry, and avoidance. When you have an anxiety disorder, you may experience worry or even terror that seems out of proportion to the situation at hand. We all feel worried or anxious at times. What distinguishes an anxiety disorder is that it’s to a level that hinders you from fully functioning or participating in daily activities.
Examples of anxiety disorders include:
- Generalized anxiety disorder
- Social anxiety disorder
- Panic disorder
- Specific phobias
- Separation anxiety disorder
Attention-deficit/ hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
ADHD can impact both children and adults. It’s generally characterized by difficulty regulating attention, hyperactivity, impulsivity, or some combination of these symptoms. Adults who have this disorder may notice symptoms such as fidgeting, interrupting, losing focus quickly, or lacking the ability to complete tasks. If you have ADHD, you may display predominantly inattentive or hyperactive/impulsive symptoms.
Bipolar disorder is characterized as a mood disorder rather than a depressive disorder. This condition causes extreme emotional highs and lows that can be highly disruptive. There are several different types of bipolar disorder.
Depressive disorders describe a range of mental health conditions characterized by persistent sadness or a depressed mood, along with other symptoms. Unlike natural grief, a depressive episode also impacts your self-esteem and may include suicidal thoughts.
Examples of depressive disorders include:
- Major depressive disorder
- Seasonal affective disorder (SAD)
- Postpartum depression
- Premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD)
- Situational depression
- Persistent depressive disorder
Eating disorders are characterized by an unhealthy preoccupation with food and body weight. Someone with an eating disorder can experience extreme disruption to their eating patterns, nutrition, physical and psychological health.
Types of eating disorders include:
- Anorexia nervosa
- Bulimia nervosa
- Binge eating disorder
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
OCD is characterized by unwanted thoughts, worries, or sensations (obsessions) that make you feel driven to engage in repetitive behaviors (compulsions).
The compulsions are time-consuming (more than an hour per day) and interfere with daily activities. Examples of common behaviors include hand washing, showering, cleaning, ordering, arranging, checking locks, and counting.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
Witnessing or experiencing a traumatic event can sometimes lead to PTSD, which can include flashbacks, nightmares, recurrent thoughts, and anxiety about the incident.
If you have PTSD, your symptoms may continue to worsen as months and years pass. Although the traumatic event is behind you, intrusive memories may linger. PTSD can include suicidal thoughts, hypervigilance, and insomnia, and it may interfere with your ability to function in daily life.
Traumatic experiences don’t always lead to PTSD, but PTSD is always preceded by one or more high-stress experiences.
Substance use disorders
Substance use disorder is defined as the uncontrolled use of a substance despite harmful consequences. You may have a substance use disorder if you can’t stop using substances like alcohol and drugs. It’s also possible to have a substance-induced mental health disorder, such as substance-induced anxiety or depression.
What causes mental illness?
We don’t exactly know what causes these conditions, but we know that contributing factors include biology, life experience, environment, and family history.
Specific genes have been linked to mental illness. For example, bipolar disorder has a strong genetic component. And research continues on other physical factors of influence, including the size of specific regions of the brain and the function of neurological pathways.
Highly adverse experiences such as trauma, physical abuse, neglect, or sexual abuse are risk factors for developing a mental health condition. As many as 70% of people in treatment for substance abuse have also experienced trauma exposure.
A family history of mental health conditions
A family member with the same condition is commonly reported for patients with mental illness. Disorders such as depression, anxiety, ADHD, bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, schizophrenia, and substance use disorder all tend to run in families.
Other factors may increase your likelihood of developing a mental health disorder.
- Developmental trauma
- Chronic health issues
- Substance use
- Traumatic brain injury
- Other mental illnesses
Sometimes, a mental health crisis or episode can be triggered by a change in your environment or life stage. Examples include:
- Stressful life events
- Traumatic experiences
- Loneliness and isolation
- Suicide of a loved one
- Hormonal changes
Signs & symptoms
The signs of mental illness vary based on condition and can also differ across individuals with the same issue. The most dangerous symptoms of mental illness are suicidal intent or any kind of violence towards self or others.
Symptoms of mental illness may include:
- A depressed mood
- Confusion or inability to concentrate
- Anxiety, fear, or worry
- Mood swings
- Withdrawal from hobbies
- Sleep disturbances
- Unexplained aches and pains
- Deluded thinking, paranoia, or hallucinations
- High stress
- Trouble connecting to people
- Substance abuse
- Changes in eating habits
- Changes in sex drive
If you feel the desire to harm yourself or others, call 911 or visit an emergency room immediately.
To reach the National Suicide Prevention Hotline, you can call 1-800-273-8255 or text “home” to 741-741.
Early warning signs
There can be many possible early warning signs of a mental health disorder. For example, you may find yourself withdrawing from your favorite activities or getting into more arguments than you usually would. In children, signs of these conditions can include irritability or behavioral issues in school.
If you think you may have a mental illness, don’t be afraid to check in with your friends and family. Talk to them about how you’re feeling. They may be able to connect you with helpful health information or help you to schedule a doctor’s appointment.
You should consult a professional as soon as possible, especially because an untreated mental illness may worsen over time. It’s possible to minimize the impact of a mental health condition on your relationships, career, and finances by seeking treatment as soon as possible.
Testing & diagnosis
To receive a mental health diagnosis, you’ll need to meet with a medical professional who can perform a psychological assessment. Although mental illnesses are influenced by your individual biology, there’s no blood test or brain scan that can diagnose you.
A clinician will probably ask you about your symptoms, family history, and feelings. They may also schedule tests to rule out physical illnesses that could cause your symptoms. You may need to answer questions about the medications you take since some drugs can cause side effects and influence your mood.
In many cases, you won’t need to meet with a clinician in person. Lemonaid’s mental health assessment can be performed from the comfort of your home.
A clinician or counselor will be able to develop a customized treatment plan to support your mental health and wellness. Your provider may recommend different combinations of therapy, medication, behavioral strategies, and lifestyle changes depending on your diagnosis.
Mental health services are also available online with telehealth providers, like Lemonaid. Schedule an appointment with a member of our medical team for an evaluation.
Talk therapy is an essential tool that you can use to treat a number of different mental illnesses. Most forms of psychotherapy aim to give you more tools to cope with stressors. In addition, psychotherapy attempts to get to the root of emotional issues—rather than treating the symptoms alone.
There are a range of therapeutic models a clinician might recommend, including:
- Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT)
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
- Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT)
- Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR)
- Family therapy
- Psychodynamic therapy
- Somatic therapy
In many cases, medication helps to reduce the symptoms of a mental health disorder. Since medication may not address the root cause of emotional issues, it’s often prescribed in combination with psychotherapy.
The following medications may help alleviate the symptoms of these disorders:
- Anti-anxiety medications
- Mood stabilizers
- Antipsychotic medications
The following lifestyle changes can improve your overall well-being, making you better equipped to handle stressors:
- Eat well
- Reduce stress
- Get a full night’s sleep
How to improve mental health
Around the world, people have lots of different ideas about how to live a good life. Below, we’ve included some scientifically proven mental health tips and self-care techniques, which can contribute to your sense of well-being.
- Care for your body and mind
- Explore spirituality
- Find community
- Practice compassion
- Take time away
We don’t all have mental health conditions, but we all have mental health. Just as caring for physical fitness can prevent challenges down the road, attending to your mental wellness can boost wellbeing now and prevent future challenges.
We often think of mental health prevention as stopping challenges before they start. But that’s just one kind of prevention—you can also practice prevention even if you are currently experiencing a mental health challenge.
A common analogy for prevention is a bucket filled with water. Imagine the bucket has a leak in it. You can keep refilling the water, or you can seek ways to plug the leak. Most likely, you’ll do a bit of both. The heart of prevention includes both approaches—determining and addressing root causes of the issue, as well as bolstering your mental health in general.
Prevention is an umbrella term and can include many health-affirming activities, like treatment, lifestyle changes, and self-care.
- If you experience a mental health episode, you’re not alone. 51.5 million adults in the United States live with a mental illness.
- There are a range of disorders, including depressive disorders, anxiety disorders, substance-related and addictive disorders, and more.
- To be diagnosed with a mental health disorder, you’ll need to be evaluated by a professional.
- Treatment for mental illness often involves therapy, medication, lifestyle changes, or some combination.
- The American Psychiatry Association. (2017). What are anxiety disorders? https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/anxiety-disorders/what-are-
- The American Psychiatry Association. (2017). What are eating disorders? https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/eating-disorders/what-are-eating-disorders
- The American Psychiatry Association. (2017). What is ADHD? https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/adhd/what-is-
- The American Psychiatry Association. (2020). What is depression? https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/depression/what-is-depression
- The American Psychiatry Association. (2020). What is obsessive-compulsive disorder? https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/ocd/what-is-obsessive-compulsive-disorder
- The Anxiety & Depression Association of America. (2021). Facts & Statistics. https://adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/facts-statistics
- Cowen & Browning (2015). What has serotonin to do with depression? https://doi.org/10.1002/wps.20229
- Craft & Perna (2004). The Benefits of Exercise for the Clinically Depressed. https://doi.org/10.4088/pcc.v06n0301
- Escamilla & Zavala (2008). Genetics of bipolar disorder. https://doi.org/10.31887/DCNS.2008.10.2/maescamilla
- Garcia-Rizo et al. (2014). “Is bipolar disorder an endocrine condition?” Glucose abnormalities in bipolar disorder. https://doi.org/10.1111/acps.12194
- Hodges (2002). Mental Health, Depression, and Dimensions of Spirituality and Religion. https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1015733329006
- Khoury et al. (2010). Substance use, childhood traumatic experience, and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in an urban civilian population. https://doi.org/10.1002/da.20751
- Mayo Clinic. (2021). Bipolar Disorder. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/bipolar-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20355955
- Mayo Clinic. (2018). Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/post-traumatic-stress-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20355967
- The National Institute of Mental Health. (2021). Mental Illness. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/mental-illness.shtml
- The National Institute of Mental Health. (2016). Substance use and mental health. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/substance-use-and-mental-health/index.shtml
- Sapolsky (2001). Depression, antidepressants, and the shrinking hippocampus. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.231475998
- The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2020). What is mental health? https://www.mentalhealth.gov/basics/what-is-mental-health
- World Health Organization (2018). Mental health: strengthening our response. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/mental-health-strengthening-our-response
- Zeng et al. (2015). The effect of loving-kindness meditation on positive emotions: a meta-analytic review. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01693
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