Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, mental health disorders have been increasing at an alarming rate. But since social distance and quarantining measures were put in place, the circumstance has caused tremendous challenges for individuals, families, and communities. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), adults with depressive or anxiety disorder symptoms increased from 36.4% to 41.5% from August 2020 to February 2021. Whereas unmet healthcare needs significantly increased from 9.2% to 11.7% around the same period.
A mental health disorder, also known as a psychiatric disorder, affects a person’s thinking, behavior, mood, and emotion. It causes significant distress and impacts the ability to relate to others and cope with work, relationships, and other demands of daily life. Mental disorders are generally treatable with medication and counseling, and the vast majority of people continue to function normally in their lives with treatment.
What Causes Mental Disorders?
A variety of factors causes mental illness. And research has revealed that any number of factors can play a role in developing mental illness. Some of such risk factors include:
- Biological factors such as chemical imbalances or defects in the brain.
- Environmental factors such as dysfunctional family life or a lack of social life.
- Genes or a family history of mental illness.
- Childhood abuse or neglect.
- Stressful life situations, such as the loss of a loved one or financial issues.
- A traumatic brain injury due to a violent blow to the head.
- Use of alcohol or recreational drugs.
- A previous mental illness.
- Exposure to environmental stressors, toxins, or alcohol, or drugs while in the womb.
It’s important to note that mental disorders are not a result of character flaws, nor do they have anything to do with being weak or lazy. It is vital to break the stigma connected with mental health disorders to treat them appropriately.
Mental Health Disorders and Genetics
Although there has long been evidence to suggest this link, recent studies have found that mental illnesses tend to run in families, making some individuals more vulnerable than others. This susceptibility is passed on through genes and is most common with conditions such as:
- Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- Bipolar disorder
- Major depressive disorder (MDD)
However, experts also believe that mental illnesses are associated with abnormalities in many genes rather than one. And a few are caused by the interaction of genetic factors with other factors, such as stress, abuse, or traumatic events. Hence, the reasoning why some people who inherit susceptibility don’t necessarily develop the illness.
Common Mental Health Conditions
According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), nearly one in five U.S. adults live with a mental illness. And almost 300 different mental disorders are listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). The most common ones include:
- Bipolar disorder
- Anxiety disorders
- Eating disorders
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
Mental diseases encompass a wide range of conditions with varying degrees of severity, ranging from mild to severe. Any Mental Illness (AMI) and Serious Mental Illness (SMI) are two broad categories used to define these illnesses (SMI). All recognized mental diseases are included in AMI. And SMI is a subtype of AMI that is smaller and more severe.
What Is Depression?
Depression, also known as major depressive disorder or clinical depression, is a common mood disorder affecting thousands of people in the U.S. and worldwide. Depression is one of the main causes of disability that negatively affects how a person thinks, feels, acts, and handles daily tasks. Depression is characterized by extreme bouts of sadness and hopelessness that last for two weeks or longer. Depression can be chronic or recurrent and can affect both adolescents and adults alike. If left untreated, depression can lead to various emotional and physical concerns, including suicide or suicidal ideations.
Types of depression include:
- Persistent depressive disorder (PDD) – Also known as dysthymia, PDD is a form of chronic depression where symptoms can linger for a long period, often two years or longer.
- Postpartum depression – This form of depression occurs during or after pregnancy. Postpartum depression is much more serious than “baby blues” and may make it difficult for mothers to tend to themselves or their babies.
- Psychotic depression – This form of depression occurs when an individual has severe depression with some form of psychosis, such as hallucinations, delusions, or other breaks with reality.
- Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) – This form of depression is related to seasonal changes. It appears at the same time each year, usually during winter when there is less natural sunlight, and improves with the change of the season.
Signs and Symptoms of Depression
Signs and symptoms of depression can vary from one person to another, depending on the type of depression and its stage. However, they generally include:
- Persistent feelings of sadness, hopelessness, helplessness, or pessimism
- Irritability or angry outbursts over trivial matters
- Lack of interest in hobbies or activities that were once enjoyed
- Finding it difficult to sleep or oversleeping
- Decreased energy or fatigue
- Moving or talking slowly
- Feeling restless or having trouble sitting still
- Difficulty remembering, concentrating, or making decisions
- Changes to weight or appetite
- Aches or pains, cramps, headaches, or digestive problems without a clear physical cause
- Suicidal thoughts or attempts
Not everyone with depression experiences all of the above symptoms. Some people experience only a few, while others may experience many. Regardless, if any symptoms last for more than two weeks, it is crucial to seek immediate medical attention.
Treatment for Depression
According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), depression is usually treated with medications, psychotherapies, or a combination of both. Medications may involve antidepressants such as fluoxetine, citalopram, or sertraline to help improve the way certain brain chemicals control mood or stress. Treatment providers usually try several different antidepressants on a person before finding the right one for their condition. Certain times, a medication that has helped the person or a close family member in the past will also be considered.
Psychotherapies, either with medications or as a single component, can also be used to control troubling symptoms of depression and improve overall physical and emotional well-being. Examples of evidence-based treatment approaches for depression include cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), interpersonal therapy (IPT), and problem-solving therapy.
If medications and psychotherapies do not reduce symptoms of depression, treatment providers may also explore electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) and other brain stimulation therapies. ECT is understood to provide relief for people with severe depression who do not respond to other treatments. ECT can also be employed as a first-line intervention when a quick response is required, or no other medications are safe to use.
What Is Bipolar Disorder?
Formerly known as manic-depressive illness or manic depression, bipolar disorder is a mental health condition characterized by severe mood swings and unusual changes in energy, concentration, and the ability to function. It typically consists of episodes of mania (overly happy, energized, or irritated mood) and depression, separated by periods of normal mood. However, manic attacks without depressive episodes are also classified as a bipolar affective disorder. Bipolar disorder is usually diagnosed during late adolescence or early adulthood, but it may occasionally appear in children.
There are three types of bipolar disorder:
- Bipolar I disorder – This condition is characterized by manic episodes that last for at least seven days or episodes that require immediate hospital care. Although depressive episodes are not criteria for diagnosing bipolar I, they can occur and last for at least two weeks in people with this condition.
- Bipolar II disorder – Both depressive and manic episodes characterize this condition. However, the manic episodes associated with this condition are not as severe as bipolar I disorder (hypomania).
- Cyclothymic disorder (also known as Cyclothymia) – This condition is defined by periods of both hypomanic and depressive symptoms that linger for at least two years in adults and one year in children and adolescents. However, the manic and depressive symptoms do not meet the diagnostic criteria for a hypomanic or depressive episode.
Symptoms of bipolar disorder that do not relate to any of the above three categories are referred to as “other specified and unspecified bipolar and related disorders.” A bipolar affective disorder is a serious mental health condition that can wreak havoc in a person’s life or even lead to suicide if not addressed promptly.
Signs and Symptoms of Bipolar Disorder
The pattern, frequency, and severity of bipolar disorder symptoms can vary from one person to another based on factors such as the category and its stage. However, during a depressive episode, most people experience symptoms common to major depression, including sadness, emptiness, and worthlessness. Whereas during a manic episode, most people experience symptoms such as:
- Increased activity, energy, or agitation
- Decreased need for sleep
- Loss of appetite
- Racing thoughts
- Irritability or aggressiveness
- Impaired judgment and impulsiveness
- Unusual talkativeness
- An exaggerated sense of well-being and confidence
- Reckless behaviors
Although the symptoms of bipolar disorder may vary over time, lifelong treatment is crucial to manage the disorder and improve quality of life.
Treatment for Bipolar Disorder
Similar to depression, an effective treatment approach for bipolar disorder includes a combination of medications and psychotherapies. Medical professionals usually prescribe mood stabilizers and second-generation (atypical) antipsychotics that target anxiety to improve bipolar disorder. However, antidepressants are also often used to manage this behavioral health disorder, in combination with a mood stabilizer to prevent manic symptoms. Most patients may have to try several different medications and work with their treatment provider before they find the right medication for them.
In addition to cognitive-behavioral therapy and psychoeducation, psychotherapies for bipolar disorder may also include advanced therapies, such as interpersonal and social rhythm therapy (IPSRT) and family-focused therapy, developed specifically for treating bipolar disorder. Treatment may also include brain stimulation techniques such as electroconvulsive therapy and transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) if medications and psychotherapies do not show the desired results.
What Are Anxiety Disorders?
Anxiety disorders are a common mental health condition that affects nearly 30% of people at some point in their lives. They differ from the normal feelings of nervousness and anxiety and are characterized by excessive anxiety or fear that worsens over time. These disorders tend to alter how a person processes emotions and significantly interfere with many aspects of life, including work and school. Anxiety disorders can start during childhood or adolescence and progress into adulthood.
Examples of anxiety disorders include:
- Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) – This condition is characterized by persistent and excessive anxiety, worry, or apprehension regarding various things, including personal health, work, and everyday life experiences. Individuals with this condition can experience anxiety for at least six months.
- Panic disorder – This condition is associated with sudden episodes of anxiety and fear that appear quickly and peak within minutes (panic attacks). These attacks may repeatedly strike without warning or be brought on by triggers.
- Phobia-related disorders – A phobia is an extreme fear or aversion to an object or situation that is considered out of proportion. Phobias can be deeply personal and dominate and hinder the day-to-day living of most people. Common phobia-related disorders include specific phobia, social anxiety disorder (social phobia), agoraphobia, and separation anxiety disorder.
Signs and Symptoms of Generalized Anxiety Disorder
According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), symptoms of a generalized anxiety disorder include:
- Difficulty concentrating
- Muscle tension
- Difficulty falling asleep
Signs and Symptoms of Panic Disorder
Panic attacks generally last for 10-20 minutes. But they can also last for more than an hour in extreme cases. Symptoms of panic disorder include:
- Heart palpitations, or a fast heart rate
- Trembling or shaking
- Shortness of breath
- Feelings of impending doom
Signs and Symptoms of Phobia-Related Disorders
Although the symptoms of phobia-related disorders can vary from one disorder to another, some common symptoms include:
- Irrational or excessive dread of coming across the feared object or situation.
- Inability to function as normal when exposed to the feared object or situation.
- Taking active steps to avoid the feared object or situation.
- Experiencing immediate anxiety upon encountering the feared object or situation.
Treatment for Anxiety Disorders
There are many approaches to treating anxiety disorders, and patients are encouraged to work with their doctor to determine the most suitable approach for them. Usually, anxiety disorders are treated with anti-anxiety medications, antidepressants, and beta-blockers. Although these medications do not cure anxiety disorders, they can help reduce their symptoms. These medications are generally prescribed through a psychiatrist or primary care provider.
In addition to medications, patients are also encouraged to participate in psychotherapies tailored to their anxiety disorder. Evidence-based behavioral therapies like cognitive-behavioral therapy can help you develop new, healthier ways of thinking, acting, and responding to anxiety triggers. CBT can also aid in acquiring and using social skills, which are critical in treating social anxiety disorder.
What Are Eating Disorders?
Eating disorders are behavioral health disorders characterized by severe and persistent disturbances in eating behaviors and related thought processes and emotions. They are associated with the constant preoccupation with food, body image, and weight. Eating disorders can have a detrimental impact on a person and cause various health complications or even death if left untreated. They are also considered to have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. These disorders typically occur during adolescence or early adulthood and affect people across all demographics, especially women.
Some of the common eating disorders include:
- Anorexia nervosa – Patients with this condition tend to consider themselves overweight, even when severely underweight. Patients with anorexia tend to constantly weigh themselves, severely restrict food intake, exercise excessively, and even force themselves to vomit or use laxatives to reduce weight.
- Bulimia Nervosa – Patients with this condition frequently consume large amounts of food until they become ill. These binge-eating episodes are followed by forced vomiting, excessive use of laxatives and diuretics, fasting, or a combination of these to compensate for the overeating.
- Binge-eating disorder – Patients with this condition have frequent binge-eating episodes, but unlike bulimia nervosa, these episodes are not followed by forced vomiting, excessive exercise, or fasting. As a result, people with a binge-eating disorder tend to be overweight or obese.
Signs and Symptoms of Anorexia Nervosa
According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), individuals with anorexia nervosa tend to be extremely thin (emaciated), with a body mass index under 18.5. Other symptoms of this eating disorder include:
- Extremely restricted eating
- Unwillingness to gain or maintain a normal or healthy body weight
- Intense fear of gaining weight
- Denial of low body weight
In addition to the above, people with anorexia nervosa may also develop certain other symptoms over time, including:
- Osteopenia or osteoporosis (thinning of the bones)
- Muscle wasting or weakness
- Brittle hair and nails
- Dry and yellowish skin
- Severe constipation
- Brain damage
- Multiorgan failure
- Low blood pressure
- Feeling sluggish or tired most of the time
Signs and Symptoms of Bulimia Nervosa
Individuals struggling with bulimia nervosa may be slightly underweight, overweight, or even normal weight.
The symptoms of bulimia nervosa include:
- Chronically inflamed, and sore throat
- Acid reflux disorder and other gastrointestinal problems
- Severe dehydration
- Swollen salivary glands in the jaw and neck area
- Increasingly sensitive and decaying teeth, due to exposure to stomach acid
- Electrolyte imbalance (too high or too low levels of sodium, calcium, potassium, and other minerals), potentially leading to stroke or heart attack
Signs and Symptoms of Binge-Eating Disorder
Patients struggling with binge-eating disorders tend to display many of the following symptoms weekly for at least three months:
- Continuing to eat despite being full
- Eating fast during the binge-eating episodes
- Eating alone or in secret to avoid being called out
- Feeling ashamed, guilty, or distressed about their eating habit
- Frequently dieting, possibly with no result
Treatment Options for Eating Disorders
Patients are advised to seek treatment as early as possible to mitigate the physical and mental health complications caused by eating disorders. Treatment for eating disorders is generally tailored to fit individual treatment needs but may include one or a combination of the following:
- Individual, group, or family psychotherapy
- Medical care and monitoring
- Nutritional counseling
Psychotherapies may include the Maudsley approach (also known as family-based treatment), where parents of adolescents diagnosed with anorexia nervosa assume responsibility for feeding their children. This therapy has shown promising results in helping people gain weight and improve healthy eating habits. CBT is another approach used to help people identify and change distorted or maladaptive thinking patterns and beliefs and improve healthy eating.
Medications may include antidepressants, antipsychotics, or mood stabilizers to treat eating disorders and other co-occurring disorders such as anxiety, major depression, or alcohol or drug addiction.
What Is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?
PTSD is a behavioral health disorder that occurs in people who have endured or witnessed traumatic life events, such as a natural disaster, war/combat, sexual assault, or a serious accident. PTSD is characterized by intense and disturbing thoughts and feelings related to the incident long after it has ended.
Although nearly everyone goes through a range of emotions and reactions after trauma, people with PTSD find it difficult to recover from their trauma and life experiences. They may find themselves re-living the incident and stay detached or estranged from family and friends. And in most cases, they may require medical intervention to overcome their trauma and continue daily living.
According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), PTSD affects approximately 3.5% of the U.S. population every year, and about one in 11 people get diagnosed with PTSD in their lifetime.
Signs and Symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Symptoms of PTSD usually last more than a month and are severe enough to interfere with relationships and work. Some people recover from the condition within six months, while others may have symptoms for much longer as it can turn into a chronic illness.
Signs and symptoms of PTSD include:
- Flashbacks, bad dreams, or frightening thoughts about the incident
- Avoidance of places, situations, or objects that reminds them of the traumatic event
- Difficulty sleeping
- Angry outbursts
- Trouble remembering key features of the traumatic incident
- Negative thoughts about oneself or the world in general
- Distorted feelings such as blame or guilt
- Loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities
- Feeling tense or on-edge
PTSD is often accompanied by substance abuse, major depression, or one or more anxiety disorders.
Treatment for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Treatment for PTSD may differ based on individual treatment needs and conditions but generally include antidepressants to control symptoms such as anger, sadness, and feelings of numbness. Other medications that treat specific PTSD symptoms, such as sleep problems and nightmares, may also be included as part of the treatment plan.
Psychotherapy is also increasingly utilized to treat PTSD. And this form of therapy mainly includes CBT to help people control feelings of fear as they gradually overcome their traumatic experiences. PTSD treatment can also include other therapies that target social, family or job-related issues. Psychotherapies for PTSD usually last six to 12 weeks or longer.
Coping With Mental Health Conditions
While medications and psychotherapies are incredibly helpful in treating various mental illnesses, individuals experiencing behavioral health challenges are also advised to engage in certain self-care practices to better cope with the stresses of life, increase resilience and improve overall mental health status.
These self-care practices may include:
- Exercising regularly
- Having a balanced diet, inclusive of fruits, vegetables, lean meat, and omega-3 fatty acids
- Having quality sleep
- Avoiding alcohol and drugs
- Engaging in relaxation techniques such as deep breathing or meditation
- Staying connected to family and friends
- Exploring healthy activities, such as journaling or gardening
- Establishing a balance between life activities, including work and personal life
Mental health is a crucial component of overall health that plays a major role in your quality of life. Hence, people should prioritize their mental well-being and seek help when things look awry.
Many mental health resources are now available, including community behavioral health centers, online mental health resources, telemental health services, and federal resources such as Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) treatment locators to provide you with the treatment and help you need to improve your mental wellbeing and quality of life.
In case of immediate help, please contact National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, Crisis Text Line, Veterans Crisis Line, or Disaster Distress Helpline. And if you are concerned about a friend’s recent behavior or social media updates, dial 911 in an emergency.