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Understanding Mental Illness

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Mental illness is a disease of the mind. It is the psychological state of someone who has emotional or behavioral problems serious enough to need psychiatric intervention.

Mental disorders are generally defined by a combination of how a person feels, acts, thinks, or perceives. This may be associated with particular regions or functions of the brain or rest of the nervous system, often in a social setting.

About 1 in 4 adults has a mental illness in any given year. About half of U.S. adults will develop a mental illness sometime in their lives. Mental illness can begin at any age, from childhood through later adult years.

In general, mental illnesses are thought to be caused by a range of environmental and genetic factors.

    • Negative life experiences. Situations in your life, such as the loss of a loved one, financial problems and high stress, can play a role in triggering mental illness. So can an upbringing that leads to poor self-esteem or a history of sexual or physical abuse. Life experiences can lead to unhealthy patterns of thinking linked to mental illness, such as pessimism or distorted ways of thinking.
    • Exposure to Environmental Hazards Prior to Birth. Exposure to toxins, viruses, drugs or alcohol while in the womb can sometimes be linked to mental illness.
    • Brain chemistry. Biochemical changes in the brain are thought to affect mood and other aspects of mental health. Brain chemicals that occur naturally in the brain are called neurotransmitters play a role in some mental illnesses. In some cases, hormonal imbalances affect mental health.


It’s thought that inherited traits, life experiences and biological factors can all affect brain chemistry linked to mental illnesses.

There are many risk factors that can heighten your chance of mental health issues.

Having a biological relative, such as parents or siblings. Having a chronic medical condition, such as cancer. Going through a traumatic experience, such as being assaulted, military combat, or being abused or neglected as a child. Even using drugs and alcohol can make you more susceptible for illness.

Mental illness is a leading cause of disability. Aside from reducing your quality of life, untreated mental illness can cause severe emotional, behavioral and physical health problems. Mental illness can also cause legal and financial problems. Severe complications include; social isolation, family and relationship complications, self harm or harm to others, inability to perform at work or school, substance abuse, heart disease, high blood pressure, and many other medical complications.

Signs and symptoms of mental illness differ greatly from one person to another. It all depends on the particular disorder, circumstances and other factors. Mental illness symptoms can affect emotions, thoughts and behaviors. Some of the common signs include:

  • Feeling sad or down
  • Reduced ability to concentrate, focus, or confused thinking
  • Excessive fears or worries
  • Inability to cope with daily problems or stress
  • Major mood changes of highs and lows
  • Withdrawal from friends and activities
  • Detachment from reality, hallucinations, or paranoia
  • Significant tiredness, low energy or problems sleeping
  • Suicidal thinking
  • Extreme feelings of guilt
  • Alcohol or drug abuse
  • Major changes in eating habits
  • Drug or alcohol abuse
  • Changes in sex drive
  • Excessive violence, hostility, or anger

Whether you schedule an appointment with your primary care doctor to talk about mental health concerns or you’re referred to a mental health provider, such as a psychiatrist or psychologist, take steps to prepare for your appointment. Keep a diary of your symptoms and their frequency. Write down key information about your past, such as traumatic events and family history. Prepare a list of questions such as:

  • What is my illness?
  • What is the treatment?
  • Do medications work?
  • What are the medications side-effects?
  • Are there red flags to look out for?
  • How do I tell my family and friends?
  • What steps do I need to take to help cope?

Coping with a mental illness can be challenging. You may need to make some serious life changes such as changing careers, leaving a relationship, diet and exercise, or behavioral therapy. The greatest thing you can do to advocate for yourself is to stay informed and keep your family and friends informed, go to therapy appointments (even though you may not want to), contact support groups, don’t set high expectations of yourself, keep a journal, and take it one day at a time.

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Robert D. Cobb
Founder, Publisher and CEO of INSCMagazine. Works have appeared and featured in places such as Forbes, Huffington Post, ESPN and NBC Sports to name a few. Follow me on Twitter at @RobCobb_INSC, email me at robert.cobb@theinscribermag.com

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