Understanding Mental Illness


Mental illness (also called mental disorders or psychiatric disorders) are biologically-based brain disorders. They cannot be overcome through “willpower” and are not related to a person’s “character” or intelligence. They are illnesses just like heart disease or diabetes.

Mental Disorders can profoundly disrupt a person’s thinking, feelings, perceptions, moods, ability to relate to others, and capacity for coping with the demands of life.


Major Mental Illness


Schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depression, panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorders, and generalized anxiety disorders are the most common mental illnesses.

Mental disorders fall along a continuum of severity from mild to moderate to severe. The most serious and disabling conditions affect about 5% of adults and children in the United States but more than 25% of people experience a mental illness at some time of their lives.

Mental illnesses tend to strike individuals in the prime of their lives, often during adolescence and young adulthood. All ages are susceptible, but the young and the old are especially vulnerable.


Mental Illnesses are Treatable


Most people with serious mental illness need medication to help control symptoms, but also rely on supportive counseling, self help groups, assistance with housing, vocational rehabilitation, income assistance, and other community services to achieve their highest level of recovery.

Without treatment, the consequences of mental illness for the individual, the family, and society are staggering: unnecessary disability, unemployment, substance abuse/addiction, homelessness, inappropriate incarceration, suicide, and wasted lives. The economic cost of untreated mental illness is more than $100 billion a year.

Treatment for serious mental illness today can be highly effective. Between 70-90% of persons treated have significant reduction in symptoms and improvement in the quality of life.

Early identification and treatment is of vital importance. By getting people the treatment, they need early, recovery is accelerated and the brain is protected from further harm.

Unfortunately, stigma often causes people to feel uncomfortable seeking help. We have allowed stigma to create attitudinal, structural and financial barriers to effective treatment and recovery.

What are Co-occurring disorders?

A person who has a mental disorder AND an alcohol/or drug dependence (addiction) disorder is said to have co-occurring disorders. Although they are separate conditions, they can interact in many ways and complicate the diagnosis and treatment of each.

Addiction can directly contribute to the onset of mental disorders or cause existing ones to worsen.

Addiction can sometimes mask a mental illness. Some mental illnesses may make a person more vulnerable to using alcohol and/or drugs and hence to develop an addiction.

Addiction can interfere with recovery from mental illness; likewise untreated mental illness can interfere with recovery from addiction. Relapse in one disorder can lead to relapse in the other.

It is important that health care providers understand the treatment needs of both disorders so that the most effective treatment can be provided. Integrated treatment that focuses on both the psychiatric and addiction issues is recommended.


Path to Recovery


Recovery is a Process and Requires Time

Whether we are the ones suffering from mental illness or have a loved one with a mental illness, most people experience a similar progression of challenges.

Dealing with the Catastrophic Event

Coping with mental illness is a process of grieving the loss of potential and dreams that were present before the onset of the illness. An initial reaction of shock and denial is usually experienced by the one suffering from a mental illness as well as the family members. We may find ourselves thinking “This is not what I think it is.”

Learning to cope

Expect strong emotions of fear, anger, guilt, resentment, despair, and anguish. Rather than “stuffing” these emotions or acting out in ways that would be harmful to yourself or others, learn to cope and work through these emotions through support groups or a mental health professional.

Moving into Recovery

Gradually, recognition, understanding, and acceptance emerge as we embrace the reality of our illness or the illness of our loved one, and chose to live again. When hope is rekindled, a willingness to try emerges and a new and valued sense of self and purpose is the result.

Self-Care Can Help Us Move Closer to Recovery

Practicing good self-care habits improves our ability to cope as we work through our difficult challenges.

Act Upon Areas You May Have Neglected

Implement a change in physical area of your life. Obvious basic needs such as, sleeping well, eating nutritious food and exercise are easy to neglect while going through a tough time.

Stay connected socially to friends. Some suggestions might be to plan an outing such as going on a walk with someone, or going out to dinner, to a movie, or concert, or other enjoyable event. Perhaps play games and allow yourself to laugh out loud. Join a support group such as NAMI Family to Family or Peer to Peer. Do an act of kindness for someone else.

Express emotions to a trusted friend, counselor, support group, or in a journal or letter. “People must be given the opportunity to hurt out loud.” – Lady Bird Johnson

Set aside time for your spiritual longings. Some quiet times may include listening to soothing and/or worshipful music, praying, meditating, or reading inspirational material. Look for and think about intangible tokens of grace through what you observe in creation and in what you hear or receive from strangers and other supportive people in your life.

Keep mentally active. Pursue knowledge of your or your loved one’s mental illness (see suggestions made in the Family Section below. Have a good book on hand. Work on a puzzle or play a board game that requires concentration.


For the Family: What to do when someone you love has a mental health condition


Destigmatize the Illness-Understand these basics:

Mental illnesses are physical disorders of the brain that result in disturbed brain functioning, thinking and behavior.

The person who is ill is not to blame, is not bad, is not someone to be ashamed of, is not weak and is not a failure.

The family of a person who is mentally ill is not at fault, did not cause it, could not have prevented it, has not failed, and does not need to feel ashamed.

Respond to this illness as you would for any other disease.


Educate yourself about Mental Illness

Ask healthcare providers for information.

Access websites for current mental health information. (Nami.org)

Go to libraries and bookstores.

Attend your local NAMI support meetings and ask for information. NAMI is dedicated to dispelling the stigma and misconceptions of mental illness through support, education, training, and advocacy.

Attend a NAMI Family to Family 8-week course or the 2-hour Family and Friends class. They provide current and detailed information about the major mental illnesses and how to best cope with them. (See the resource tab)

You will find there are numerous resources with current information. What is know is changing rapidly and medications available to treat mental illnesses are becoming increasingly effective. Stay as up to date as possible!


Don’t go it alone- get support for yourself

The stigma and shame about mental illness that is still prevalent in our society often keeps us isolated and alone in trying to cope with the illness of our loved one. It is helpful to reach out to others who know what we are going through and can understand our feelings and concerns.

Consider counseling for yourself with a trained professional.

Ask your local mental health program/care provider or hospital about their family support services or other groups such as Nami.


Get involved in your loved one’s healthcare

Because of the disordered and dysfunctional thinking that is part of mental illness, it is especially important that we be involved in our loved one’s care and treatment. Our loved one is not always able to communicate clearly or report accurately about what is going on. We need to be his/her advocate and voice when that is necessary.

Encourage your loved one to sign a release of information so that you can communicate and consult with his/her health care providers when necessary. If the consent is not given, you can always provide written communication to these providers about your observations.

Become familiar with the medications your loved one is taking so you can report on their level of effectiveness and side effects.

Help your loved one keep current and accurate written records including dates and kind of symptoms experienced, medications taken, and names of current or past providers.

Do not be afraid to be assertive if you feel a health care provider is not adequately attending to your loved one’s needs.