Mental Illness

Mental illness is defined, by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, as “medical conditions that disrupt a person’s thinking, feeling, mood, ability to relate to others and daily functioning.” If left untreated, mental illness, depending on its severity and type, can be seriously debilitating. Some mental illnesses can be life-threatening, eventually resulting in death. With treatment, however, the vast majority of mental illnesses can be effectively managed.

There is a broad range of mental illness types, a list that continues to evolve as modern technologies allow researchers to delve deeper into the way processes that influence and impact behavior, emotion and mood take place in the brain. Early intervention is important to the successful treatment of mental illness, as is taking a multi-discipline approach. Pharmaceutical treatment is rarely sufficient on its own and typically complemented by cognitive therapies. Some mental illnesses can result in physical ailments that need to be managed to achieve the sort of overall well-being that can help to maintain mental health after mental illness is brought under control.

Serious Mental Illness

Serious mental illness is defined by the National Institute of Mental Health as a mental illness or disorder that results in “serious functional impairment, which substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities.” According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Boston University Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation, major life activities include the ability to care for oneself, learn, work, communicate, and engage in successful personal relationships.

Treatment is essential for these types of mental illnesses, as these types of illnesses can have a deeply negative impact on quality of life. Untreated or under-treated serious mental illness is a common factor in homelessness, and a significant percentage of people that are incarcerated have serious mental illnesses, as well as co-existing mental disorders. Mental illnesses classified as serious include:

Other Mental Illnesses

The World Health Organization has compiled an extensive list of mental illnesses in order to help facilitate and standardize treatment and research in the field. Part of the result of such efforts has been to reduce the social stigma that has stubbornly been attached to mental illness. Shame and denial continue to be significant barriers to obtaining treatment for mental illness, though – fortunately – to much less of a degree than in times past. In past eras, mental illness was seen more as a personal failing than as a disease to be treated. Today, the awareness of mental illness as a disease is becoming much more widespread, which helps people to get the treatment they need to live happy and productive lives.

Severe mental illness is fairly rare. The vast majority of mental illnesses and disorders are not categorized as serious and most can be regulated with proper treatment.

Here are some of the common mental illnesses and disorders:


  • Can be organic, such as resulting from a stroke or a disease, such as Alzheimer’s, or non-organic, meaning not directly connected with a physical cause.

Mood Disorders

  • Include a variety of specific disorders relating to mood management and control.

Anxiety Disorders

  • Present in different ways, such as those related to phobias, like agoraphobia. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, there are five primary sorts of anxiety disorders – generalized anxiety, social anxiety, obsessive-compulsive, post-traumatic distress, and panic disorders.

Eating disorders

  • Include bulimia and anorexia, and are typically more common in females, although in recent years there has been an increase in occurrence in males.

Sleeping Disorders

  • Include such disorders as the disruption of the sleep and wake cycle, insomnia and hyper-somnia.

Sexual Dysfunction

  • Covers a broad range of sexual disorders, from a lack of sexual interest to difficulties in sexual function, such as an inability to achieve orgasm or premature orgasm, to hyper-sexuality and obsessive sexuality.

Personality Disorders

  • Range from the serious, such as schizoid and paranoid personality disorders, in which severity of symptoms is a factor in determining how serious the disorder is, to disorders like dissocial and anxious personality disorders.


  • Occur in all age groups. Some experts theorize that there may be a genetic factor involved in this disorder. Other attribute generational occurrence more to the environment that people are brought up in and the sorts of behaviors they see on a regular basis.

Conduct Disorders

  • Range in severity, with the most severe types resulting in harm to others, animals and property.

Emotional disorders

  • Include a broad range of disorders relating to the management, control and experience of emotions.

When Mental Illness Is Suspected

If there is concern that a loved one or friend is suffering from one or more types of mental illness or disorder, getting that person to seek the treatment they need can be challenging. Sometimes a person is aware that they do need help but suffers embarrassment or shame concerning the mental illness, or fear of the treatment process. A caring conversation, with concern expressed in a supportive manner, presenting real treatment potentials and solutions can encourage the person to take advantage of treatment opportunities.

In situations where a person is unaware of or in denial about his or her mental illness, it can be much more difficult to help the individual obtain treatment. In that case, family and friends may not be able to achieve treatment goals. The end result may be that treatment results from a court mandate related to criminal activity resulting from the mental illness or, in extreme circumstances, an involuntary commitment. These are fairly rare because the standards for involuntary commitment are very high in the interest of protecting civil rights.

Is It Time to Intervene?

It can be difficult to determine whether or not a situation requires or can be helped by intervention. In some cases, intervention without professional assistance can be dangerous, depending upon the severity of the mental illness. Therefore, in deciding whether to intervene or specifically how to intervene in a productive and safe manner, it can be useful to speak with a professional specializing in assessing mental disorders, as well as an intervention specialist. Be sure to ask the interventionist whether or not he or she is certified to conduct a mental illness intervention. Many interventionists handle substance abuse interventions only, so it is important to ask for their credentials ahead of time to make sure your loved one can get the appropriate care.