What Is a Mental Disorder?

Your comprehensive guide to understanding a mental disorder, learning its most common types, and finding the right coping techniques.

Mental Disorder

Anyone who has been diagnosed with a mental illness knows how misunderstood they are. Even their friends and family find it difficult to comprehend how they are feeling and what they are doing. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), almost 60 million or one in four Americans will experience a mental health disorder. In comparison, one out of 17 Americans lives with a serious mental illness.

Just like diabetes, mental illness is a health problem. However, it involves how a person thinks, feels, and acts. The medical community has devised standardized criteria for measuring the severity of the illness, but the disease itself is still extremely baffling to most. When diagnosed, the individual feels isolated and rejected unless their family support system is very strong and participates in their recovery.

There are several mental disorders, also referred to as mental illness, mental impairment, or a psychiatric disability. Each condition has different degrees of severity, but whatever type an individual is diagnosed with, the disorder separates them from the general public because it affects how they deal with others.

The most common mental illnesses are anxiety, depression, personality disorders, eating disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorders, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder.

What Is a Mental Illness or Disorder?

Mental Illness

Mental illnesses affect the mind and emotions, often because of chemical imbalances in the brain. For instance, an obsessive-compulsive disorder is defined as having intrusive, irrational thoughts and unwanted ideas or impulses that repeatedly appear in a person’s mind. Again, the person experiences the motivation to wash their hands or check to see if they left the oven on, which completely disturbs their lives.

Someone diagnosed with bipolar disorder may only sleep a few hours a night when they are manic but sleep 20 hours when in depression. That is why the right medication is so important because it manages brain activity.

People do not understand mental disorders because the signs of serious mental illnesses are not logical by medical standards. The person with schizophrenia appears to be talking to himself by all outward appearances, while they may be hearing voices inside their head, and they are merely answering those voices.

This is extremely baffling and frustrating to an average person trying to help their friend or relative.

An average individual cannot assess the problem or communicate with someone who has a mental disorder. Training is imperative, and even psychiatrists encounter situations that they do not understand. Those closest to someone diagnosed with a mental illness learn to listen and love them just like they are.

In the past 50 years, research has made great strides in understanding the root causes of mental illnesses and improving medications. Thanks to the National Association of Mental Illness (NAMI), the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), and other mental health organizations across the country, mental illness is coming out of the closet, and the public is becoming more educated.

Causes of Mental Illness

Family history and genealogy play a significant role in mental illness, though the gene often remains dormant until a certain age.

Life experiences play a huge role in a person’s mental health. Growing up with physical, mental, or emotional abuse, experiencing extreme stress, or exposing the body to extreme situations, such as war, are additional causes of mental disorders.

Serious accidents, such as being involved in an auto accident, could result in a traumatic brain injury. Pregnant women exposed to viruses, toxic chemicals, or drugs and alcohol may also be affected.

When you factor in all the pressures of life, including financial pressures, physical problems, and relationships trouble, many causes affect the mind and create disorders.

Major Mental Disorders

Bipolar Disorder/Manic-Depression

Bipolar disorder is a serious mental illness characterized by extreme emotions ranging from mania, a talkative, reckless, euphoric mood, to depression. The extravagant actions and erratic, risky behaviours of the individual create havoc in their lives, resulting in damaged relationships and careers.

There is a high risk of suicide in major disorders, but most people who have bipolar disorder can maintain a normal life with medication. Unfortunately, many refuse to take their medicines and only experience normal moods between episodes of their extreme behaviours.

Schizophrenia Disorder

Schizophrenia is a serious mental disease that typically manifests in people when they are young, mostly under 25. Schizophrenia “re-wires” the brain is causing the patient to have hallucinations and “hear voices.” This disorder can be debilitating because it distorts the way a person thinks, expresses emotions, perceives reality, and relates to people, basically their whole life.

Because schizophrenia and bipolar disorder affect the brain and emotions, they create drama throughout the patient’s life. Schizophrenia is marked by depression, feelings of severe worthlessness, hopelessness, sadness, and hallucinations and is always inherited through genealogy. It can be treated with medicine and therapy but is never cured.

Schizoaffective Disorder

Schizoaffective disorder is a less intense form of schizophrenia, and it has many similar characteristics, including mood swings, disorganized thinking, and psychotic symptoms. At times a person with schizoaffective disorder has trouble determining reality with mild to severe consequences.

Both schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorders are lifelong illnesses that impact every area of a patient’s life. They have periodic episodes of bizarre behaviours that flare up at regular intervals.

There is no permanent cure for either disease because they are genetically oriented. Who can control the milder stages with medication and diligent treatment? And research shows that 60 per cent of patients find remission and lead normal lives.

Clinical Depression

Major depression is much more than sad feelings, and it is not something that the individual can “snap out” of. Someone with clinical depression may be incapacitated for days and may require long-term treatment.

Clinical depression affects the person’s brain just like other mental disorders and may get progressively worse when everyday life becomes overwhelming. Depression patients feel like they live under a “cloud” and that life is not worth living. Most people with depression can function with medication and psychological counselling.

Treatments of Mental Disorders

The treatment of any mental disorder typically involves developing a new perspective on the present symptoms. Someone with an eating disorder may have to attend a 12-step group or go to therapy while learning a healthy way of eating.

Someone with an anxiety disorder could attend group therapy to fight the fears while also taking medication. Someone diagnosed with bipolar disorder or schizophrenia will have a more difficult lifestyle maintaining recovery. Still, as much as 95 per cent of mental disorder patients will not have to be permanently hospitalized.

When an individual becomes more familiar with their illness, they begin to recognize their unique behaviour patterns and can find specific treatment as needed. Individuals with a mental disorder learn to identify and manage their disease with rest, talking, organized groups, counselling, exercise, diet, and medication.

It is proven to be very beneficial for the patient to speak and share their emotions and thoughts instead of keeping them inside, which only causes more frequent episodes.

Studies show that patients who take responsibility for their own lives have the best chance of leading a satisfying life. With help from professionals, they can learn to prevent relapses and lead healthy lives, maintaining physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being.

Eight Tips to Help People Take Responsibility for Their Lives

  1. Accept the disorder
  2. Take the medicine as prescribed every day. Episodes occur more frequently and are more severe when the patient is not taking their medications. Unfortunately, those with a mental disorder believe that they don’t need any medications and often resist taking them.
  3. See a therapist or counsellor. Studies have shown that letting out feelings, emotions, and problems is effective in treatment. A therapist can offer coping skills and become a significant part of the process.
  4. Schedule at least 8 hours of sleep every 24 hours. Sleep is the best time for the body to restore its energy and rejuvenate itself; it allows the brain to rest. Turn off all electronics an hour before bed and wind down by reading or taking a warm bath. Sleeping in bed may be another alternative.
  5. Engage in 15-30 minutes of any type of exercise every day.
  6. Eliminate all drugs and alcohol from your life; a mental disorder is difficult enough to manage.
  7. Don’t isolate yourself from the people around you. It may be difficult to make and sustain friendships, but associating with others allows you to get out of your circumstances. Connecting with other people will help you diffuse pent-up emotions instead of trying to handle everything by yourself.
  8. Learn relaxation techniques. Relax with yoga and calming music for 10-15 minutes every day.

Those diagnosed with a mental disorder lead challenging lives. There is still much to learn about mental illness and how to cope with it, but everyday research reveals more information that helps us better understand it.