One in four people are expected to experience a mental health problem, yet stigma and discrimination are still very common. Myths such as assuming mental illness is somehow down to a ‘personal weakness’ still exist.
How do we define mental health?
A person who is considered ‘mentally healthy’ is someone who can cope with the normal stresses of life and carry out the usual activities they need to in order to look after themselves; can realise their potential; and make a contribution to their community. However, your mental health or sense of ‘wellbeing’ doesn’t always stay the same and can change in response to circumstances and stages of life.
Everyone will go through periods when they feel emotions such as stress and grief, but symptoms of mental illnesses last longer than normal and are often not a reaction to daily events. When these symptoms become severe enough to interfere with a person’s ability to function, they may be considered to have a significant psychological or mental illness.
Someone with clinical depression, for example, will feel persistent and intense sadness, making them withdrawn and unmotivated. These symptoms usually develop over several weeks or months, although occasionally can come on much more rapidly.
Mental health problems are defined and classified to help experts refer people for the right care and treatment. The symptoms are grouped in two broad categories – neurotic and psychotic.
Neurotic conditions are extreme forms of ‘normal’ emotional experiences such as depression, anxiety or obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). Around one person in 10 experiences these mood disorders at any one time. Psychotic symptoms affect around one in 100 and these interfere with a person’s perception of reality, impairing their thoughts and judgments. Conditions include schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
Mental illness is common but fortunately most people recover or learn to live with the problem, especially if diagnosed early.
What causes mental illness?
The exact cause of most mental illnesses is not known but a combination of physical, psychological and environmental factors are thought to play a role.
Many mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder can run in families, which suggests a genetic link. Experts believe many mental illnesses are linked to abnormalities in several genes that predispose people to problems, but don’t on their own directly cause them. So a person can inherit a susceptibility to a condition but may not go on to develop it.
Psychological risk factors that make a person more vulnerable include suffering, neglect, loss of a parent, or experiencing abuse.
Difficult life events can then trigger a mental illness in a person who is susceptible. These stressors include illness, divorce, death of a loved one, losing a job, substance abuse, social expectations and a dysfunctional family life.
When is someone thought to be mentally ill?
A mental illness cannot be ‘tested’ by checking blood or body fluids. Instead it is diagnosed, usually by an experienced psychiatrist or clinical psychologist, after studying a patient’s symptoms and monitoring them over a period of time.
Many different mental illnesses can have overlapping symptoms, so it can be difficult to tell the conditions apart.
To diagnose a mental health condition, psychiatrists in the UK may refer to the World Health Organisation’s International Classification of Diseases (ICD) system. This lists known mental health problems and their symptoms under various sub-categories. It is updated around every 15 years.
Some experts argue that the current system relies too strongly on medical approaches for mental health problems. They say it implies the roots of emotional distress are simply in brain abnormalities and underplay the social and psychological causes of distress.
They argue that this leads to a reliance on anti-depressants and anti-psychotic drugs despite known significant side-effects and poor evidence of their effectiveness.