What is Mental Illness?
The American Psychiatric Association defines mental illness as a health condition that involves “changes in emotion, thinking, or behavior—or a combination of these.” The organization estimates that: one in five (19%) U.S. adults experience some form of mental illness; one in 24 (4.1%) has a serious mental illness; and one in 12 (8.5%) has a diagnosable substance use disorder.
The nature of these illnesses is such that when left untreated, they can affect our ability to work and the way we relate to and with others. I personally avoid talking to people when stressed because the condition makes me come across as unfriendly and even rude!
Some people still find it shameful to disclose that they are suffering from mental illness in spite of expert records indicating that people with these ailments can recover from them and lead full lives with the right medication and appropriate support. In this way, mental illness is comparable to physical illnesses such as diabetes or heart disease— the difference is the stigma attached to mental illness prevents people from getting help.
Who is at Risk of Mental Illness?
Health experts concur that the mental health problems we suffer are caused by a complicated combination of factors which affect each of us differently.
It is true that we all face the risk of suffering from either a mild or full-blown form of mental illness. We can all suffer from mental illness regardless of our age, sex, background or ethnicity. However, there are internal and external factors that contribute to compromising our mental health status.
Experts report that people assigned female at birth (AFAB) stand a higher chance of suffering from depression, anxiety, eating disorders and drug or alcohol misuse. This parallels other studies which found that those assigned male at birth (AMAB) are most likely to suffer from depression, Substance Use Disorder, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Bipolar Disorder (also known as Manic Depression).
Adolescents are more predisposed to suffer from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) than either children or adults.
Bio-Psychological Factors and Mental Health Afflictions
There are biological and psychological factors that could potentially trigger illnesses of the mind. These factors impact the lives of children as well as adults. They include:
- brain chemistry
- the way we interpret events as either negative or positive
- hailing from a family with a history of behavioral health illnesses
- living with a neurological disorder such as Alzheimer’s disease or dementia
Other Factors That Increase Risk
Mental experts agree that there exist multiple factors that can escalate our chances of suffering from a mental illness of one form or another, namely:
- abuse of alcohol or recreational drugs
- poor nutrition regime
- lack of or shaky support system
- undergoing a traumatic birth or a high-risk pregnancy
- living with a chronic medical condition such as cancer, diabetes or hypothyroidism
- prolonged sleep disorder
- living a stressful life
- a past traumatic brain injury
- living through a traumatic life event or having a past history of abuse
- struggle with spirituality or beliefs
- inability to provide for one’s family
- being homeless or experiencing unsafe / unstable housing
- being a long-term care-giver
- work that is neither satisfying nor fulfilling
Symptoms of Mental Illness
There are several signs and symptoms that health experts look for in supporting their diagnosis of mental illnesses. Being aware of these symptoms can help you spot when yourself or a loved one may be struggling with their mental health. Some of these indicators are:
- prolonged display of sadness or dullness
- erratic thinking or reduced concentration span
- unusual occurrences of abnormal fears and worries interspersed with guilt
- severe mood swings from lows to highs and vice-versa
- unwarranted withdrawal from regular friends and activities
- unusual stints of tiredness, low energy coupled with sleeping problems
- delusions, paranoia or hallucinations
- inability to cope with regular life problems or stress
- inability to understand, relate to common situations and people
- excessive intake of alcohol and other drug use
- a significant change in eating habits
- changes (low/high) in sex drive
- surprising anger, hostility or violence
- display of suicidal tendencies or suicidal ideation
Why Good Mental Health is Beneficial
The benefits we derive from having a good mental health state include, but are not limited to:
- ability to cope with stressful situations in life
- boost to our physical health
- maintain good and healthy relationships with others
- increased work productivity
- realize our full potentials in life
Besides this, recent studies indicate that those with anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other forms of mental ailments are at an increased risk of stroke.
Steps to Support People Struggling with Mental Illness
If you know someone who is struggling with their mental health, it is important to support them however you can. Breaking the stigma associated with being open about mental health conditions is a burden all of us carry, and hopefully doing so will allow more people to live their fullest lives with mental illness. Some of the measures we should take to support people around us include:
1. Listen with an Open Mind
If you are able to do so, be available to listen to your friends and family. We should show empathy not just by our facial expression alone but also our body language and tone of our voice.
2. Avoid Criticisms & Comparisons
Avoid making offhand remarks such as “You are fine” or “Cheer up”. The goal is to make everyone feel comfortable and secure as they vent about their emotions. Our experiences of sadness should never lead us to compare what we’ve been through to someone else’s situation. While it’s often nice to share experiences, you run the risk of making the other person feel that their situation is being trivialized.
3. Ask Questions
Remember, you don’t know everything your friend is going through. Ask respectful questions and approach the conversation with curiosity and empathy. Be accepting of what they are willing to share and what they would prefer to keep private.
4. Connect with Their Community
Re-establishing a sense of purpose can be helpful for people struggling with depression or other serotonin-depleting mental health conditions. We should offer guidance and support for people who want to revive past relationships with family, friends, or hobbies. Whether it be getting meaningfully involved in neighborhood activities, finding a new job, learning a new skill, forming connections is important. We should establish what their hobbies and interests are and connect them to those they have a lot in common with.
5. Learn to Meditate
Meditation is key in helping people reignite their attention and awareness of their mind and body. We can help other people do this by securing a quiet and comfortable place to think and sharing free online resources. However, it is best if we do not impose our own beliefs upon them.
6. Help Them Access Appropriate Medical Attention
Many mental health conditions can be addressed through the intervention of a mental health expert, yet most people still lack the knowledge and/or resources they need for this. Your help is what they require to have their journey to full recovery begin. Connecting a loved one to low-cost therapy, community support groups, or a psychiatrist can be a crucial part in their journey.
It takes all of us to make 2023 a special year in the life of a friend who has been suffering from a mental health illness. A few minutes of your time could remind someone that their life matters. Let’s act now!