What Is Mental Illness? Symptoms And Causes

What is mental illness? Find out how to spot the signs, identify key causes and boost your mental well-being.


Photo by Anthony Tran on Unsplash


Just like asthma or diabetes, mental illness is a common issue and not at all shameful. Almost one in five adults in the U.S. (over 50 million people) are currently living with a mental illness, while more than half will experience one in their lifetime.


Let’s find out about the kind of mental health challenges that people are facing and how to spot the signs.


What Is Mental Illness?


A mental illness is a health condition that involves a change in thinking, emotions, behavior, or a combination of all three. Most of the time, this change can cause problems in a person’s life and sense of well-being.


Some effects of mental illness can include relationship problems, career issues, or struggles with general life tasks like budgeting. Mental illness can also affect your perceptions, meaning that you might not always see yourself or your situation clearly.

What Are the Different Types of Mental Health Conditions?


People can experience a wide range of mental health issues. Types and categories of conditions can include:


• Anxiety disorders (generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD, etc.).

• Mood disorders (depression, bipolar disorder, dysthymic disorder, etc.).

• Personality disorders (avoidant personality disorder, borderline personality disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, etc.).

Eating disorders (anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder, etc.).

• Psychotic disorders (schizophrenia, postpartum psychosis, schizoaffective disorder, etc.).

• Trauma disorders (post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), complex post-traumatic stress disorder, adjustment disorder, etc.).

• Addictive disorders (alcohol addiction, gambling addiction, work addiction, etc.).


In other words, mental illness can show up in many different ways. For instance, it can manifest as feeling very low (depression), delusional thinking (schizophrenia), or a distressing relationship with food (anorexia).


What Are the Main Causes of Mental Health Issues?

Mental illness can have a variety of complex roots, including:


• Genetic (e.g., family history of depression or anxiety).

• Biochemical (e.g., imbalances in brain chemistry, use of illegal substances).

• Childhood and life experiences (e.g., abuse, abandonment).

• Current or recent stressful events (e.g., accident, bereavement).

• Societal issues (e.g., pandemics, the job market).

• Physical illness (e.g., recent upsetting diagnosis, the strain of living with an illness).

• Environmental issues (e.g., poor accommodation, unsafe neighborhood).

• Identity issues (e.g., questioning sexuality, mid-life crisis).

• Isolation or loneliness (e.g., moving to a new place, suffering from discrimination).

• Unhealthy habits (e.g., poor diet, lack of sleep).

Often, mental health challenges are a combination of the above and can’t be explained by a simple cause or event.


What Are the Key Signs of Mental Illness?


Because there are so many different types of mental health issues, symptoms can vary widely. Here are some to look out for:


• Ongoing life instabilities, such as those with relationships, holding down jobs, or budgeting.

• A sudden or gradual change in behavior or habits.

• Changes in body language, such as avoiding eye contact, frowning, or slumping shoulders.

• Changes in mood, for instance, seeming down or swinging from highs to lows.

• Changes in speech patterns, for instance, speaking rapidly or in a monotone.

• Change in eating habits such as binging or loss of appetite.

• Changes in sleep patterns such as insomnia or sleeping for half the day.

• Avoiding socializing or family time.

• Irritability or explosive temper.

• Loss of interest in sex.

• Loss of interest in hobbies and pastimes.

• Inability to do everyday tasks such as housework or opening mail.

• Sudden or uncontrollable crying.

• Seeming negative, hopeless, or despairing.

• Confused thinking or struggling to concentrate.

• Drinking heavily or taking drugs.

• Sudden overconfidence or being on a “high.”

• Threatening or abusive behavior.

• Impulsive or risky behavior.

• Developing strange, fearful, or paranoid beliefs.

• Seeing or hearing things that aren’t there.


8 Ways To Stay Mentally Healthy


When it comes to mental health, many of us have to find our own path to wellness, sometimes with the help of doctors or experts. Let’s look at some ways to improve your well-being.


1. See a mental health professional — whether it’s a counselor, clinical social worker, psychotherapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist, talking to a specialist can help. Many types of support are available, from psychodynamic therapy to CBT to EMDR.


2. Try medication — pharmaceuticals are a personal choice. But for some people, they make a big difference in helping to lessen, manage and recover from mental illness.


3. Develop a healthy lifestyle — paying attention to our physical health is important in maintaining mental health. A balanced and nutritious diet, regular exercise, and a healthy sleep schedule can positively impact your thoughts and emotions.


4. Practice self-care — this can be any activity that soothes you, boosts your mood, or makes you feel safe. Examples are listening to music, making art, spending time in nature, riding a bike, or self-soothing activities like focused breathing.


5. Connect with others — healthy and supportive relationships can elevate your mood, well-being, and self-esteem. This might include making new friends through hobbies or joining a support group.


6. Remove stressors and triggers from your life — this could include leaving an abusive relationship, moving on from a toxic job, or creating better boundaries with challenging family members.


7. Process your feelings — if you’ve experienced a loss or shock, releasing associated emotions can help you move forward from issues like depression or anger.


8. Find meaning and purpose in your life — having goals to work towards, dreams that inspire you, and a chance to make a difference in the world can boost your well-being.


Mental health challenges are a part of life for many people. Often, there are no quick or simple solutions. But by becoming aware of the signs and causes and committing to a wellness lifestyle, you can find more happiness, stability, and balance.