Like physical health, mental health — being able to think, feel, and act in ways that enhance your life — is something we all need. At the same time, we all have quirks, habits, and even odd activities that make us unique. For example, you might fidget a lot, eat when you’re stressed, have a fear of flying, or love cats so much that you own way more of them than most people. How do you know if your quirk is just a benign personality trait, or if it’s a sign that you’re teetering on the edge of a mental disorder?
The answer is simple, says clinical psychologist Roberta Temes, PhD, a psychotherapist in New York City and author of Getting Your Life Back Together When You Have Schizophrenia. “If it interferes with your relationships, your work, your sleep, your daily feelings of contentment, or if it negatively impacts someone else, it’s a problem. And if it doesn’t interfere with any of that, it isn’t a problem.”
If you’re worried that something might be wrong or frequently ask yourself, “Do I need help?” one way to get clarity is to take one of the free online mental health screening tests for common and treatable conditions, including depression, anxiety, and eating disorders, at Mental Health America.
- You’re not coping or functioning as well as you once did.
- You worry excessively or feel anxious a lot of the time.
- Your mood changes rapidly.
- You feel sad, down, or hopeless most of the time.
- You cannot stop thinking about past or recent upsetting events.
- You’re turning to alcohol, street drugs, or other substances to cope.
- You’re frequently irritable, hostile, or prone to anger outbursts.
- You have extreme fears that prevent you from doing things you’d like to do.
- You have serious thoughts of suicide. If you’re in distress now, you can receive free and confidential support by dialing 988 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. (It’s available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.) If you’re in crisis and need urgent help, call 911 or go to the emergency room.
9 Football Players Who’ve Spoken Up About Mental Health
Am I the Only One?
You’re not. Mental illnesses are so common, they’re one of the leading causes of disability in the world. (2)
From 2019 to 2020, over one in five American adults — or 50 million people ages 18 and older — had a diagnosable mental, behavioral, or emotional disorder ranging from mild, to moderate, to severe, according to federal data. (3)
And while mental health concerns were far-reaching before 2020, they’ve become even more pervasive and worrisome since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, global prevalence of anxiety and depression increased by a whopping 25 percent in the first year of the pandemic, according to the World Health Organization.
So if you’ve been having a tough time, you are not alone, and there are many mental health conditions that could put a name to your struggles.
- Anxiety Each year, about 19 percent of U.S. adults experience an anxiety disorder, such as excessive worrying, panic attacks, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder; 31 percent experience one at some time in their lives. (4)
- Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) Marked by a depressed mood that impairs functioning for two weeks or longer, it affected more than 8 percent of U.S. adults at least once in the past year. (5)
- Substance Abuse Over 15 percent of adults in America reported having a problem with alcohol, illicit drugs, or prescription drugs in the past year. (6)
- Bipolar Disorder (BPD) Each year, an estimated 3 percent of U.S. adults are affected by bipolar disorder, characterized by dramatic shifts in mood, energy, and activity levels that make it hard to carry out day-to-day tasks; more than 4 percent are affected by BPD at some time in their lives. (7)
What links these disorders and the myriad others that fall under the umbrella of mental illnesses in our culture? Each one, to different degrees in different people, makes “our rational minds feel as though we’ve been hijacked by something we cannot control,” says David A. Kessler, MD, a professor at the UCSF School of Medicine in San Francisco and author of Capture: Unraveling the Mystery of Mental Suffering.
How Are Mental Health Problems Diagnosed?
Determining whether an emotion, a behavior, or a combination of the two is problematic enough to be labeled a mental disorder lies mainly with the person who is experiencing it. “Different people can deal with the same level of problem very differently depending on their resilience and coping skills,” explains James Maddux, PhD, a professor emeritus in the department of psychology at George Mason University and a senior scholar at the university’s Center for the Advancement of Well-Being.
“There is no hard and fast line between normal emotions and problems of living, of thinking, and behaving in ways that cause emotional distress or upset. There’s such a tremendous gray area between the two that that distinction does not exist.”
So what should you do if you feel as if you need relief?
Your first stop should be your doctor’s office for a physical exam to rule out any underlying medical conditions that may be masquerading as a mental health problem. For example, signs of heart trouble, such as rapid breathing, might be misdiagnosed as anxiety, thyroid disorder as depression, and syphilis as psychosis. (8,9,10) Without taking this precautionary step, you could inadvertently delay essential medical treatment.
Once you get the all-clear from your doctor, a psychiatrist, psychologist, or other mental health professional can evaluate your symptoms and your history, then turn to The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), which lists criteria, including feelings and behaviors, for making a diagnosis.
It’s important to recognize that a diagnosis provides only a broad label for your symptoms. “It doesn’t automatically point the way to a cure,” says Maddux, the editor of the recent book Subjective Well-Being and Life Satisfaction. “It’s individual in the eyes of the person experiencing the problem and also in the eyes of the professional who’s evaluating the person’s emotional distress or behavior problem. Everyone’s experience is different.”
So, strictly speaking, a diagnosis is simply a starting point from which you and your clinician can begin to formulate a treatment plan tailored specifically to you. (A diagnosis is also required if you are seeking reimbursement from your insurance company).
Fear of Labels Can Be a Hurdle Toward Diagnosis
Although the Americans with Disabilities Act has been protecting people with mental illnesses from discrimination since 1990, shame and stigma due to damaging stereotypes continue to stop many people from seeking help. One large 2014 study estimated that 40 percent of people with serious mental illness are not receiving treatment and said that stigma — specifically fear of being seen as dangerous, incompetent, unpredictable, or responsible for their condition — is one of the top reasons why. (11)
“The fear of being labeled or even self-labeling can keep a person from reaching out for help, even if that help is simply buying a book on a self-help topic,” says Maddux.
A positive development is that more and more celebrities are opening up about their mental health struggles, spreading the word that those stereotypes are not true. A few of the many are: (12)
Lady Gaga Speaking about being diagnosed with PTSD, the singer said, “I suffer from PTSD. I’ve never told anyone that before, so here we are. But the kindness that’s been shown to me, by doctors as well as my family and my friends, it’s really saved my life.”
Jon Hamm The Mad Men actor has been candid about the merits of medication saying, “Antidepressants help! If you can change your brain chemistry enough to think: ‘I want to get up in the morning; I don’t want to sleep until 4 in the afternoon. I want to get up ... and go to work.’”
Catherine Zeta-Jones The star of the movie-musical Chicago has said, “with my bipolar becoming public, I hope fellow sufferers will know it is completely controllable. I hope I can help remove any stigma attached to it.”
Cost: Isn’t Treatment for Mental Health Expensive?
In a word, yes. Cost is another common barrier to treatment. In a recent federal study, one in five Americans reported that they or a family member did not receive needed mental health services, and 13 percent of those people said that was because they could not afford it. Another 12 percent said it was because their insurance would not cover treatment. (13)
Rather than letting the cost of therapy stop you from seeking treatment, you can turn to resources such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness HelpLine at 800-950-6264 (available Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., ET) for help locating local clinics that offer affordable treatment. You can also try logging on to sites like Psychology Today Therapist Finder, Zencare.co, or GoodTherapy.com and using their search tools to identify mental health providers who take your insurance, use a sliding scale fee structure, or offer supportive group therapy, which is typically less costly.
Whether a mental health problem develops gradually or comes on relatively quickly, a combination of self-care, lifestyle tweaks, treatment, and support can make you feel better.
Anxiety: One of the Most Common Mental Disorders
Reacting to difficult situations or negative news by worrying or feeling nervous is pretty much a universal experience. Feeling apprehensive or fearful is even healthy when it helps you avoid potential harm. But if those thoughts are making you terribly uneasy, interfering with day-to-day activities and relationships, or causing dizziness, racing heart, or other physical symptoms, you may be suffering from a more severe form of anxiety. That’s something you can — and should — get help with.
Bipolar Disorder: Treatable but Underdiagnosed
Living with any mental illness can be challenging, but bipolar disorder can be especially so. One reason is that it isn’t always easy to get an accurate diagnosis. One feature of bipolar disorder is unpredictable mood swings between two opposite symptoms, depression and euphoria, which can confuse the diagnostic picture. Plus, it includes three different conditions — bipolar I, bipolar II, and cyclothymic disorder. People may suffer for years without appropriate treatment. An experienced mental health professional, however, can make an accurate diagnosis and develop a personalized treatment plan that lets you live life to the fullest.
Borderline Personality Disorder: Intense Feelings Can Trigger Reckless Behavior
When most people feel intense emotions like sadness or anger, coping mechanisms kick in to keep their reactions in check. No so for people with borderline personality disorder (often referred to as BPD). They often find intense emotions so painful and difficult to contain that they may go numb, feel frantic, or do potentially harmful things like act out in a rage, drive recklessly, eat uncontrollably, or even injure themselves or attempt suicide. Biology and environment play a role in its development, which is good news. Why? Because it means that with medication, the right therapy, and support from friends and family, people with BPD can counter those causes and regain emotional control.
Depression: More Than the Effect of the Stress of Everyday Life
Depression is one of the most common mental health problems. It’s also one of the most undertreated ones since many of the signs of depression — such as feeling sad, irritable, overwhelmed, or hopeless — can easily be chalked up to everyday stress. Fortunately, if those thoughts and feelings are putting a damper on your life, there’s a lot you can do to fight back.
Major Depressive Disorder: A Persistent Sadness That Won’t Let Up
What’s the difference between feeling depressed and having major depressive disorder (MDD)? A lot. For one thing, MDD is persistent; it doesn’t come and go. For another, to be diagnosed with MDD you need myriad symptoms — at least five. The takeaway? If your mood keeps hindering your happiness and your ability to handle work, relationships, and other aspects of everyday life, seek help. Substantial research shows that folks with MDD can achieve a full recovery with medication, psychotherapy, and other interventions.
RELATED: 9 Different Types of Depression
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): It Affects More Than Just Soldiers
Many people think post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is something that only soldiers who’ve been in battles can develop. Many people are wrong. PTSD can develop in anyone who has witnessed or experienced a traumatic event, such as a car accident, sexual or emotional abuse, or “acts of God” like hurricanes. Its symptoms — things like constantly being afraid, feeling emotionally numb or frequently having nightmares or flashbacks — can make it seem as if you’ll never get over what happened. But that’s wrong, too. Directly challenging that sense of helplessness by reaching out for support, processing your feelings with a mental health professional, and developing new coping skills can help you overcome PTSD and move on with your life.
Schizophrenia: A Mental Illness That Tends to Strike in Adolescents and Young Adults
Hearing sounds that don’t exist, seeing things that are not there, struggling with paranoid thoughts … all are classic signs of schizophrenia, a brain disorder that usually appears in late adolescence or early adulthood. Linked to a chemical imbalance in the brain, as well as environmental and genetic factors, it was once considered a hopeless illness. But thanks to the advent of antipsychotic drugs, people with schizophrenia can now effectively manage its signs and symptoms.
RELATED: Managing Schizophrenia as a Family
Editorial Sources and Fact-Checking
- Mental Illness and the Family: Recognizing Warning Signs and How to Cope. Mental Health America.
- Mental Health Problems Are the Leading Cause of Disability Worldwide, Say Experts at PAHO Directing Council Side Event. World Health Organization. October 2, 2019.
- The State of Mental Health in America. Mental Health America.
- Any Anxiety Disorder. National Institute of Mental Health.
- Major Depression. National Institute of Mental Health. January 2022.
- Adult Ranking 2023. Mental Health America. 2022.
- Bipolar Disorder. National Institute of Mental Health.
- Is This an Anxiety Attack or Heart Attack? How to Know. UPMC HealthBeat. September 2, 2022.
- Hage MP, Azar ST. The Link Between Thyroid Function and Depression. Journal of Thyroid Research. 2012.
- Crozatti LL, de Brito MH, Lopes BNA, de Campos FPF. Atypical Behavioral and Psychiatric Symptoms: Neurosyphilis Should Always Be Considered [PDF]. Autopsy Case Reports. 2015.
- Stigma as a Barrier to Mental Health Care. Association for Psychological Science. September 4, 2014.
- For World Mental Health Day 20 Celebrities Speak Honestly About Their Mental Health Battles. Marie Claire. October 9, 2019.
- What Are the Current Costs and Outcomes Related to Mental Health and Substance Use Disorders? Peterson-KFF Health System Tracker. July 31, 2017.
- Take a Mental Health Test. Mental Health America.
- COVID-19 Pandemic Triggers 25% Increase in Prevalence of Anxiety and Depression Worldwide. World Health Organization. March 2, 2022.
- Find a Therapist. Psychology Today.
- Find the Best Therapist for You. Zencare.
- Find a Therapist. GoodTherapy.
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