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A mental illness is a psychiatric disorder that results in a disruption in a
person's thinking, feeling, moods, and ability to relate to others.
Psychiatrists generally attribute mental illness to organic/neurochemical
causes that can be treated with psychiatric medication, psychotherapy,
lifestyle adjustments and other supportive measures. Compare
Mental illness is distinct from the legal concept of insanity.
Mental health, mental hygiene and mental wellness are all terms used to
describe the absence of mental illness.
Advocacy organizations have been trying to change the common perception of
psychiatric disorders as a sign of personal weakness and something to be
ashamed of to an affliction akin to physical diseases (like the measles).
Prevalence of and diagnosis of mental illness
Mental illness is one of the most common causes of disability in the Western
World. According to NAMI (National Alliance for the Mentally Ill) an
American advocacy organisation, twenty-three percent of North American
adults will suffer from a clinically diagnosable mental illness in a given
year, but less than half of them will suffer symptoms severe enough to
disrupt their daily functioning. Approximately nine percent to 13 percent of
children under the age of 18 experience a serious emotional disturbance with
substantial functional impairment, and five percent to nine percent have a
serious emotional disturbance with extreme functional impairment due to a
mental illness. Many of these young people will recover from their illnesses
before reaching adulthood, and go on to lead normal lives uncomplicated by illness.
Major depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and obsessive-compulsive
disorder all feature in the 'top ten' list of causes of disability in the
The treatment success rate for a first episode of schizophrenia is 60
percent, 65 percent to 70 percent for major depression, and 80 percent for
At the start of the 20th century there were only a dozen recognized mental
illnesses. By 1952 there were 192 and the DSM-IV today lists 374. Depending
on your perspective this could be seen to be
* due to some causative agent such as diet or the ever-increasing stress
of everyday life, leading to a highly increased incidence of mental
* an over-medicalisation of human thought processes, and an increasing
tendency on the part of mental health experts to label individual
'quirks and foibles' as illness; or
* improved diagnostic and clinical ability on the part of the
Controversy over the nature of mental illness
The subject is profoundly controversial, e.g. homosexuality has been
considered such an "illness" from time to time, and obviously this
perception varies with cultural bias and theory of conduct.
It is important to note that the existence of mental illness and the
legitimacy of the psychiatric profession are not universally accepted. Some
professionals, notably Doctor Thomas Szasz, Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry
at Syracuse, are profoundly opposed to the practice of labelling "mental
illness" as such. "There is no such thing as mental illness" is not an
uncommon statement at gatherings of therapists emphasizing patient care and
self-control, often decrying labels as suitable only for pill salesmen. This
movement, known as anti-psychiatry argues against a biological origin for
mental disorders, or else suggests that all human experience has a
biological origin and so no pattern of behavior can be classified as an
illness per se.
Neurochemical studies have proven that there are systemic lacks of certain
neurotransmitters in the brains of certain individuals. Also, some
structural differences between brains of people with behavioral differences
can be detected in brain scans. Some mental illnesses tend to run in
families, and there have also been strongly suggestive, but not conclusive,
links between certain genes and particular mental disorders. Routine tests
for these conditions are, however, not generally required for prescription
of drugs, and are not always employed in law either. It is not clear whether
these differences in brain chemistry are the cause or the result of mental
disorders. Anti-psychiatrists argue that traumatic life experiences that
exceed an individual's coping ability can result in lasting changes in brain
chemistry. Patterns of learned behavior can also alter brain chemistry, for
better or for worse. Cognitive behavior therapy focuses on changing patterns
of thinking through learning, which may ultimately restore so-termed
"healthy" brain chemistry.
Drug therapies for severe mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder and
clinical depression which are consistent with biochemical models have been
remarkably effective, and there are reports of increasively effective
treatments for schizophrenia. Anti-psychiatrists, however, argue that drugs
merely mask the symptoms of mental suffering by physically crippling the
brain's emotional response system. Studies have shown that many patient's
symptoms return once drug treatment is ceased.
Categorization of mental illness
Many mental illnesses have been categorised into groups according to their
common symptoms, in a diagnostic manual called the DSM-IV. There are
thirteen different categories. Some categories contain a myriad of illnesses
and some with only a few:
* disorders usually recognised in infancy, childhood or adolescence;
e,g., mental retardation, autism, ADHD
* Delerium, dementia, amnesiastic and other cognitive disorders; e.g.,
* mental disorders due to a general medical condition; e.g., AIDS-related
* substance-related disorders; e.g., addiction
* Schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders
* Mood disorders; e.g., depression, bipolar disorder
* Anxiety disorders
* Somatoform disorders; e.g., hypochondria
* Factitious disorders; e.g., Munchausen's syndrome
* Dissociative disorders; e.g., dissociative identity disorder
* Sexual disorders; e.g., gender identity disorder
* Eating disorders
* Sleep disorders
* Impulse-control disorders eg.kleptomania, pyromania
* Adjustment disorders
* Personality disorders