Identifying Mental Health Conditions
Nearly 1 in 5 Americans has a mental health disorder. While they range widely in severity and symptoms, all have a negative impact on quality of life.
In 2014, mental health disorders were responsible for 6 percent of hospitalizations, up more than 20 percent from 2005. Mental illnesses, half of which begin by age 14, are the leading cause of disability worldwide, yet less than 45 percent of sufferers get help. Reducing the burden of mental health issues begins with identifying symptoms, getting a professional diagnosis and pursuing treatment.
Common mental health conditions include anxiety, mood, personality and eating disorders, and encompass substance and behavioral addiction.
Anxiety disorders are the most prevalent mental illnesses in the United States, affecting 20 percent of the population. They cause abnormal fear or worry despite no obvious threat. They include generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), specific phobias and social anxiety disorder.
GAD causes persistent, excessive worry about everyday life, such as work, family and money. OCD causes obsessions, or repeated, unwanted thoughts, which may be relieved by compulsions, the urge to consistently repeat a behavior.
A phobia is an intense, irrational fear of something specific that does not pose a significant real threat. Social anxiety disorder causes an individual extreme dread of social settings.
Mood disorders are also common, impacting 10 percent of Americans. Two of the most prevalent are depression and bipolar disorder. Depression impacts nearly 7 percent of Americans, causing feelings of sadness, hopelessness, lack of energy and loss of interest. Bipolar disorder causes extreme shifts in mood and energy, from extreme depressive lows to manic highs. Both types of mood disorders are also linked with increased risk for suicidal thoughts.
Personality disorders affect 9 percent of Americans, causing inflexible thinking and behavior. They are divided into three clusters of behavior: borderline personality disorder may be the best known, though obsessive-compulsive and narcissistic personality disorders are more common.
Eating disorders affect 9 percent of the global population and 9 percent of Americans at some point in their lifetime. They are the second-most deadly mental illness after drug overdose.
Binge eating disorder is characterized by uncontrolled consumption of abnormally large amounts of food, often in a short period of time. Individuals with bulimia nervosa consume large amounts of food and may use exercise or self-induced vomiting to purge. Anorexia nervosa includes extreme calorie restriction, intense fear of weight gain, distorted body image and low body weight.
Almost 21 million Americans suffer from at least one addiction, yet only 10 percent receive treatment. Addiction is a compulsive physiological or psychological need for a habit-forming substance, behavior or activity, with harmful effects. Tobacco is the most common, but alcohol, opiates, cocaine, heroin, gambling and gaming addictions are all highly prevalent, with deadly complications with long-term use.
Symptoms of common mental health conditions
While mental health issues manifest differently, there are general signs and symptoms. These include chronic fatigue, sleep problems, decreased interest in or pleasure from activities, unexplained sadness, worry or guilt, difficulty concentrating, extreme mood swings, withdrawal from friends and social activities, inability to cope with daily problems, relationship problems, alcohol or drug abuse, appetite and weight changes, anger, changes in sex drive and suicidal thinking.
There are also specific signs linked to each family of disorders. Symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder include excessive worry and tension, restlessness, irritability, headaches, fatigue and sleep issues, and an unrealistic view of problems.
OCD symptoms may include obsessive thoughts and behavior (such as fear of being contaminated, stress when objects aren’t arranged orderly), and compulsion symptoms (such as constantly washing or cleaning, counting in patterns, checking and double checking a light switch or lock). These thoughts and behaviors are intrusive, yet those suffering from OCD are helpless to stop them
Signs of panic disorder are panic attacks—a sense of impending doom, heart palpitations, sweating, chills, shortness of breath, dizziness—as well as intense fear of subsequent attacks, and the avoidance of triggering situations. PTSD often involves fear and anxiety, extreme emotional distress over reminders of the event, hopelessness, negative thoughts, detachment, being easily startled, feeling scared or always on alert and having angry outbursts.
Social anxiety signs include extreme nervousness leading up to an event, worry about embarrassing oneself, blushing, sweating, increased heart rate, tension, GI distress, lightheadedness and avoiding eye contact. A specific phobia can cause extreme fear, a feeling of imminent danger, heart palpitations, sweating, trembling, chest pain, nausea and a sense of depersonalization or that things aren't real.
Depression symptoms often appear as sadness, hopelessness, irritability, loss of interest in or pleasure from normal activities, sleep problems, appetite and weight changes, anxiety, trouble concentrating and making decisions, physical pain and suicidal thoughts. Bipolar symptoms vary, from severe depression symptoms to increased energy and activity, talkativeness, racing thoughts, distractibility, recklessness, euphoria, exaggerated self-confidence and sense of invincibility.
Signs of borderline personality disorder may be intense fear of abandonment, a pattern of unstable and intense relationships, impulsive behaviors, extreme mood swings, rapid changes in goals, values and self-identity, inappropriate anger, suicidal threats and self-injurious behavior.
Common symptoms of anorexia nervosa include extreme weight loss, fatigue, insomnia, dizziness, low blood pressure, thin and breaking hair, absence of menstruation, cold intolerance, exercising excessively, severe restriction of food intake, preoccupation with food and social withdrawal. Bulimia nervosa may result in preoccupation with body image, use of laxatives, diuretics or enemas, forced vomiting or overexercising after eating, fasting or restricting food intake and living in fear of gaining weight.
Binge eating disorder symptoms include extreme overeating in a short period of time, eating when not hungry or uncomfortably full, eating alone or in secret, feeling depressed or ashamed about eating and frequently being on a diet.
Addiction symptoms may be more familiar to an outsider: the need to regularly use a substance or engage in a behavior, taking larger amounts of a drug to achieve the same effect, taking larger amounts of a drug unintentionally, always maintaining a supply of the drug/substance, failing to adhere to work or social obligations, continuing to use or engage in a behavior despite the problems it causes, reckless behaviors under the influence, experiencing withdrawal symptoms when attempting to stop and being unable to halt the behavior.
Rare symptoms of mental health issues
Less commonly, mental health disorders may result in strange, seemingly unrelated symptoms or behaviors. Anxiety can manifest in a number of strange ways: excessive yawning, gastric distress, ringing in the ears, burning sensation on the skin, heart irregularities, numbness or tingling, difficulty swallowing, blurred vision, watery eyes, skin rashes and itching, shooting pains and cold hands and feet.
Bipolar disorders may cause an unusually heightened response to weather, and depression may look like overcompensating through perceived happiness. Eating disorders may present with food sabotage (making food inedible, such as by oversalting), using only particular utensils to eat, excessive interest in what others are eating, unusual food combinations and careful inspection of food.
Addiction may also appear with unusual and/or subtle signs, like being unreliable, changes in appetite, sleeping more or less, being nervous, having financial problems, excessively using mints or hand sanitizer and frequently being ill.
When to seek help
If you experience any ongoing symptoms of these disorders, schedule an appointment with your primary care provider for evaluation.
It's possible that a physical health problem is the root cause (for example, hypothyroidism or cardiac irregularities), but it's always better to err on the safe side, and seeking help early is a key factor in recovery. If other issues are ruled out, your doctor will refer you to a mental health specialist, the first step to recovery.
All mental health disorders should be treated by a professional. If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, tell someone you trust, or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
How to get help for a loved one
If a friend or family member is experiencing these symptoms and hasn't sought treatment, find a private time to gently bring it up.
Tell them your concerns and why you think they may need help; ask about their thoughts and feelings. Ask how you can be supportive. Don't be combative or affrontive; if an individual feels they are being backed into a corner, they are likely to respond badly or defensively. Make it clear you're not judging or shaming, but that you love them and want to help.
If a loved one has refused to seek help or treatment, talk to a mental health provider to discuss appropriate next steps. Some illnesses, like addiction, are commonly approached through an intervention. For others, a mental health provider may advise you that the person has to seek help in their own time. However, if you have any reason to believe someone may be a danger to themselves or others, take action immediately.
Ask a mental health provider about the laws in your state for hospitalizing a person who needs psychiatric care, and even consider calling 911 if you suspect someone is at risk of harming themselves or others.
There are myriad sources for information about mental health. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), Mental Health America, and PsychCentral are excellent resources that cover an array of disorders.
For specific mental illnesses: Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA), the Personality Disorders Institute (PDI), National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).
In times of crisis, there are countless national outlets for immediate assistance. For the Crisis Text Line, text HELLO to 741741, available 24/7 in the United States. The Disaster Distress Helpline (call or text 1-800-985-5990) assists anyone in emotional distress or crisis.
For veterans, the Veterans Crisis Line (call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) and press 1, or text to 838255) offers free, confidential service 24/7. Calling 911 or going to the nearest emergency room is always the best option if you or someone you know is in immediate danger.
Support groups can provide help on many fronts: advice on how to cope, companionship during a difficult and sometimes lonely battle, encouragement and a good example, and tips based on shared experiences. They can also help you realize that you are not struggling alone.
For addiction: Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), Narcotics Anonymous (NA), SMART Recovery, Loosid, Club Soda, LifeRing. Connecting with people who are experiencing the same struggles can be powerful and extremely beneficial.
While mental health disorders are common, suffering from one can be extremely lonely. But you are not alone. There is help out there, and the sooner you are on the right path, the brighter the future will be. Don't lose hope.