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Understanding Mental Illness: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatments

by Rinn Norman
(Atlanta, GA, USA)


Nearly everyone will struggle with some form of mental illness at least once in their life. Advances in science and medicine over the last century alone have made mental illness one of the most prominent topics of research in the fields of psychology and psychiatry. Some examples of mental illness include anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and alcohol use disorder. These conditions are characterized by how they affect your thoughts, feelings, and behavior and are often caused by biological, genetic, environmental, or social factors.

Mental Health and Mental Illness

To understand mental illness, we must understand mental health. Being mentally healthy means being able to adequately go about your daily life through maintaining relationships, productive work, and adapting to and coping with various situations. When you have a mental illness or mental disorder, you may experience uncharacteristic changes in your actions, thought patterns, and feelings. You may also struggle to cope with social, professional, or familial responsibilities. Mental illnesses don’t discriminate either; people of all ages, genders, and sexualities are affected by mental illness.

Examples of Mental Illness

Many mental illnesses share the same symptoms. At the same time, these disorders are diagnosed and identified primarily by their symptoms. Researchers are still exploring whether mental illnesses like anxiety and depression can be diagnosed on a physiological basis, like neurological disorders like epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, and Tourette’s syndrome. Because mental illness can be difficult to see in patients physically, many people do not believe they are real diseases. Nevertheless, mental disorders are valid mental conditions.

Examples of these conditions include…

  • Bipolar disorder (also called manic depression)

  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder

  • Schizophrenia

  • Borderline personality disorder

  • Substance abuse disorder

  • Post-traumatic stress disorder

  • Alcohol use disorder

  • Symptoms

    Symptoms of mental illness can vary depending on the disorder and the individual. However, mental illnesses are expressed in a variety of ways, which may include the following:

  • Inability to cope with daily stresses

  • Excessive fatigue and poor quality of sleep

  • Mood swings or feeling overemotional

  • Feelings of sadness, worthlessness, or hopelessness

  • Paranoia or hallucinations

  • Withdrawal from social relationships and hobbies

  • Inability to focus or concentrate

  • Loss of motivation

  • Changes in appetite

  • Issues with drugs or alcohol

  • Thoughts of harming yourself or others

  • Suicidal thoughts

  • Some mental illnesses may manifest physically as well. Physical symptoms of a mental illness may include stomach pain, nausea and vomiting, back and neck pain, and headaches. If undiagnosed or untreated, these symptoms can worsen your condition.

    How Does Mental Illness Occur?

    While researchers are still working out what causes mental illness on a physiological level, they have identified a handful of risk factors that can increase the likelihood of a person developing a disorder. Generally, one’s risk of developing a mental illness is dependent on genetic, environmental, and social factors.

    Environmental factors that increase the risk of mental illness can include head trauma, exposure to toxins and other substances, and poor nutrition. On the other hand, scientists believe genetic factors play a role in mental illness due to the finding that patients are more likely to be diagnosed with a mental illness if they have a parent or sibling with that same illness. Meanwhile, social factors that can impact your mental health may include familial stressors, financial hardship, or exposure to violence or abuse.

    How Is Mental Illness Treated?

    Despite strides in neurological, psychological, and psychiatric research over the last several decades, scientists do not entirely understand what causes mental illness yet.

    We know that mental illness is physically characterized by low levels of neurotransmitters in the brain, such as serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. With this knowledge, researchers have developed medications like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and selective norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) to balance neurotransmitter levels in the brain and treat symptoms of anxiety and depression.

    It bears mentioning that mental illness is not entirely curable, but it can be treated and managed to allow individuals to function and live normal lives. Treatment for conditions like depression and anxiety, along with other potential disorders, begins with seeing your primary care physician or a mental health professional. A professional can provide you with a myriad of treatment choices, such as medication or therapy. In more extreme cases of mental illness, it may be necessary to seek inpatient or outpatient rehabilitation.

    Stigma, Final Thoughts

    Sadly, many people have held false preconceptions about mental illness for years. Some believe that those with a mental illness are dangerous, irresponsible, unable to do things for themselves, or weak. However, it is crucial to recognize the stigma associated with mental illness is based on stereotypes and false portrayals of it in popular media. Nobody chooses to be mentally ill, no more than someone with a chronic illness like asthma or diabetes.

    Ultimately, it’s important to recognize that mental illness can affect anybody, and attitudes have begun to shift away from this stigma in recent years–particularly following the mental health crisis the world faced during the COVID-19 pandemic. While mental illness cannot be cured and can manifest itself in a variety of ways, widespread education and treatment options offer hope for managing these conditions and enabling individuals to lead fulfilling lives.


    American Psychiatric Association: What Is Mental Illness?
    American Psychological Association: The Roots of Mental Illness
    National Institutes of Health: Information about Mental Illness and the Brain
    T.R.U.E. Addiction and Behavioral Health

    About the Writer

    Rinn Norman is an Atlanta, GA-based editor, reporter, and Awareness Advocate at You can also find her teaching freshman composition at Kennesaw State University or tending to her houseplants.

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