Mental illness, also called mental health disorders, refers to a wide range of mental health conditions — disorders that affect your mood, thinking and behaviour. Examples of mental illness include depression, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, eating disorders and addictive behaviours.
Many people have mental health concerns sometimes, but a concern can turn into a mental illness when ongoing signs and symptoms cause frequent stress and affect your ability to function.
A mental illness can begin to take hold and make you feel miserable, which causes problems in your everyday life, such as at school or work or in your relationships. This can cause worry, in turn problems in sleeping, then daytime tiredness and lack of energy. It then becomes a vicious circle, the problems seem magnified and harder to cope with.
It has been known that mental heath disorders can create physical symptoms, such as stomach or back pain, headaches or unexplained aches.
If you feel you have any symptoms of a mental health disorder, it’s best to seek help at an early stage. Most mental illnesses don’t improve on their own, and will probably only get worse over time, cause serious problems and be harder to treat.
Signs and symptoms of mental illness can vary, depending on the disorder, circumstances and other factors. Mental illness symptoms can affect emotions, thoughts and behaviour.
Examples of signs and symptoms are:
- Feeling sad or depressed
- Lack of concentration and confused thinking
- Excessive worrying and guilt
- Extreme mood swings of highs and lows
- Reduced contact with friends and participation in activities
- Significant tiredness, lack of energy or problems sleeping
- Problems coping with daily problems or stress
- Problems with alcohol or drug use
- Major changes in eating habits
- Feelings of excessive anger, hostility or violence
- Suicidal thoughts
The worst-case scenario would be suicidal thoughts which are very difficult to treat without help. Talking to someone is an important first step in dealing with these feelings, so try talking to a loved one about how you feel. Whilst that person probably won’t be qualified to advise you at a professional level, it will help to talk to someone. They may suggest you seek professional help, which is good advice.
If you have suicidal thoughts
Suicidal thoughts and behaviour are common with some mental illnesses. If you think you may hurt yourself or attempt suicide, get help right away. Call a help organisation, such as:
Anxiety UK - 03444 775774 www.anxiety.org.uk
Samaritans - 116 123 www.samaritans.org
Mind - 0300 123 3393 www.mind.org.uk
Papyrus - 0800 068 4141
Childline - 0800 1111 www.childline.org.uk
Refuge - 0808 2000 247 www.refuge.org.uk
Young Minds - TEXT YM to 85258
Switchboard LGBT+ helpline - 0300 330 0630 www.switchboard.lgbt
Shout - TEXT SHOUT to 85258 www.giveusashout.org
CALM - 0800 58 58 58 www.thecalmzone.net
Beat Eating Disorders - 0808 801 0677 www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk
Alcoholics Anonymous - 0800 9177 650 www.alcoholics-anonymous.org.uk
Or call a friend, or someone who will listen to you.
If you know someone in your life who you think is struggling, try and have a chat with them. Let them know you have a concern about them, maybe that they don’t seem their usual self and you wonder if there’s anything wrong. Be supportive, maybe suggest they see someone, even make the appointment for them (with their permission of course).
In general, mental illnesses, are considered to be caused by a range of genetic and environmental factors:
They could be hereditary – certain genes could increase the risk of developing a mental illness. They could be caused before birth, in the womb, if the mother consumed excess alcohol or drugs, or was exposed to stress from their environment at the time
However, an illness can be brought on by many factors, for example:
- A stressful situation in life, such as financial problems, a bereavement or a relationship break-up
- An ongoing (chronic) medical condition, such as diabetes
- Brain damage caused by a serious injury (traumatic brain injury), such as a violent blow to the head
- Traumatic experiences, such as military combat or assault, or a difficult job such as emergency workers
- Excessive use of alcohol or recreational drugs
- A traumatic childhood such as abuse or neglect
- Loneliness caused by lack of friendships or relationships
Mental illness is more common than many believe. About 20% of adults have a mental illness in any given year. Most cases are rooted in early life but can begin at any age.
Some illnesses are only temporary, others are longer lasting. It’s possible to suffer from more than one illness at a time.
Apart from the symptoms already mentioned, complications can occur. An illness may cause problems within the family unit and with friends or colleagues. It may be that a spiral of depression, problems with relationships and being unable to function properly in the workplace leads to financial difficulties, cause health issues including a weakened immune system. So the more problems there are, the more there is to fix, which is why it’s important to seek help early on.
There's no guaranteed way to prevent mental illness, but start with looking after yourself. A healthy diet combined with exercise and sufficient sleep is a good start. Do things that make you happy, mix with positive people. And if you have trouble sleeping or are unsure about your lifestyle, such as diet and exercise, do some research or ask a professional. If you’re sleeping well, have bags of energy and are exercising, you will feel better and more positive. Having a positive outlook will reduce the risk of a mental illness and will help you to cope better if things do go a bit wrong sometimes.