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Mental illness

Medically reviewed by Drugs.com. Last updated on Dec 13, 2022.

Overview

Mental illness, also called mental health disorders, 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).

Symptoms

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, headaches, or other unexplained aches and pains.

When to see a doctor

If you have any signs or symptoms of a mental illness, see your primary care provider or a mental health professional. 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:

Suicidal thinking doesn't get better on its own — so get help.

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 professional 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.

Causes

Mental illnesses, in general, are thought to be caused by a variety of genetic and environmental factors:

Risk factors

Certain factors may increase your risk of developing a mental illness, 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 cases 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.

Complications

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:

Prevention

There's no sure way to prevent mental illness. However, if you have a mental illness, taking steps to control stress, to increase your resilience and to boost low self-esteem may help keep your symptoms under control. Follow these steps:

Diagnosis

To determine a diagnosis and check for related complications, you may have:

Determining which mental illness you have

Sometimes it's difficult to find out which mental illness may be causing your symptoms. But taking the time and effort to get an accurate diagnosis will help determine the appropriate treatment. The more information you have, the more you will be prepared to work with your mental health professional in understanding what your symptoms may represent.

The defining symptoms for each mental illness are detailed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), published by the American Psychiatric Association. This manual is used by mental health professionals to diagnose mental conditions and by insurance companies to reimburse for treatment.

Classes of mental illness

The main classes of mental illness are:

Treatment

Your treatment depends on the type of mental illness you have, its severity and what works best for you. In many cases, a combination of treatments works best.

If you have a mild mental illness with well-controlled symptoms, treatment from your primary care provider may be sufficient. However, often a team approach is appropriate to make sure all your psychiatric, medical and social needs are met. This is especially important for severe mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia.

Your treatment team

Your treatment team may include your:

Medications

Although psychiatric medications don't cure mental illness, they can often significantly improve symptoms. Psychiatric medications can also help make other treatments, such as psychotherapy, more effective. The best medications for you will depend on your particular situation and how your body responds to the medication.

Some of the most commonly used classes of prescription psychiatric medications include:

Psychotherapy

Psychotherapy, also called talk therapy, involves talking about your condition and related issues with a mental health professional. During psychotherapy, you learn about your condition and your moods, feelings, thoughts and behavior. With the insights and knowledge you gain, you can learn coping and stress management skills.

There are many types of psychotherapy, each with its own approach to improving your mental well-being. Psychotherapy often can be successfully completed in a few months, but in some cases, long-term treatment may be needed. It can take place one-on-one, in a group or with family members.

When choosing a therapist, you should feel comfortable and be confident that he or she is capable of listening and hearing what you have to say. Also, it's important that your therapist understands the life journey that has helped shape who you are and how you live in the world.

Brain-stimulation treatments

Brain-stimulation treatments are sometimes used for depression and other mental health disorders. They're generally reserved for situations in which medications and psychotherapy haven't worked. They include electroconvulsive therapy, repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation, deep brain stimulation and vagus nerve stimulation.

Make sure you understand all the risks and benefits of any recommended treatment.

Hospital and residential treatment programs

Sometimes mental illness becomes so severe that you need care in a psychiatric hospital. This is generally recommended when you can't care for yourself properly or when you're in immediate danger of harming yourself or someone else.

Options include 24-hour inpatient care, partial or day hospitalization, or residential treatment, which offers a temporary supportive place to live. Another option may be intensive outpatient treatment.

Substance misuse treatment

Problems with substance use commonly occur along with mental illness. Often it interferes with treatment and worsens mental illness. If you can't stop using drugs or alcohol on your own, you need treatment. Talk to your doctor about treatment options.

Participating in your own care

Working together, you and your primary care provider or mental health professional can decide which treatment may be best, depending on your symptoms and their severity, your personal preferences, medication side effects, and other factors. In some cases, a mental illness may be so severe that a doctor or loved one may need to guide your care until you're well enough to participate in decision-making.

Lifestyle and home remedies

In most cases, a mental illness won't get better if you try to treat it on your own without professional care. But you can do some things for yourself that will build on your treatment plan:

Coping and support

Coping with a mental illness is challenging. Talk to your doctor or therapist about improving your coping skills, and consider these tips:

Preparing for an appointment

Whether you schedule an appointment with your primary care provider to talk about mental health concerns or you're referred to a mental health professional, such as a psychiatrist or psychologist, take steps to prepare for your appointment.

If possible, take a family member or friend along. Someone who has known you for a long time may be able to share important information, with your permission.

What you can do

Before your appointment, make a list of:

Questions to ask may include:

Don't hesitate to ask any other questions during your appointment.

What to expect from your doctor

During your appointment, your doctor or mental health professional is likely to ask you questions about your mood, thoughts and behavior, such as:

Your doctor or mental health professional will ask additional questions based on your responses, symptoms and needs. Preparing and anticipating questions will help you make the most of your time with the doctor.

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