Mental Health

Everyone feels worried or anxious or down from time to time. But relatively few people develop a mental illness. What's the difference? A mental illness is a mental health condition that gets in the way of thinking, relating to others, and day-to-day function.

Dozens of mental illnesses have been identified and defined. They include depression, generalized anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia, and many more.

Mental illness is an equal opportunity issue. It affects young and old, male and female, and individuals of every race, ethnic background, education level, and income level. The good news is that it can often be treated.

Signs and symptoms of mental illness depend in part on the illness. Common symptoms include

  • feeling down for a while
  • extreme swings in mood
  • withdrawing from family, friends, or activities
  • low energy or problems sleeping
  • often feeling angry, hostile, or violent
  • feeling paranoid, hearing voices, or having hallucinations
  • often thinking about death or suicide.

In some people, symptoms of a mental illness first appear as physical problems such as stomach aches, back pain, or insomnia.

Individuals with a mental illness can often ease their symptoms and feel better by talking with a therapist and following a treatment plan that may or may not include medication.

Mental Health Articles

Generalized anxiety disorder

Everyone experiences anxiety from time to time — usually in response to physical stress (such as nearly being run over by a car) or psychological stress (such as having your boss threaten to fire you). When you are being tested or challenged in some way, normal anxiety warns of potential danger and prepares you to deal with it. Normal anxiety has its roots in fear—an emotion that serves an important function. When you face a dangerous or stressful situation, fear helps motivate the body to take action by activating the flight or fight response: the heart beats faster, sending more blood to the muscles; breathing becomes heavier; and muscles tense in readiness for movement. This defensive mechanism provides the body with the necessary energy and strength to cope with threatening situations. When our prehistoric ancestors saw a tiger lying in wait for them, they needed to run. In people with generalized anxiety disorder, the same physical and emotional mechanisms are set in motion, even though there is no physical threat to contend with. For them, feelings of anxiety or apprehension occur for no specific reason. More »

When keeping stuff gets out of hand

Compulsive hoarders accumulate unneeded items beyond reason. While hoarding is sometimes a symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder, most hoarders do not exhibit the characteristics of OCD. Television shows such as Hoarders and Hoarding: Buried Alive have increased public awareness and mental health professionals are also taking a fresh look at the problem. More »

What pushes a person to commit suicide?

Most people who commit suicide are depressed, but what triggers this irrevocable step varies from person to person. Suicide may stem from intense feelings of anger, despair, hopelessness, or panic. Sometimes it's carried out under the sway of a highly distorted or psychotic idea. Many suicides are impulsive. A number of factors can put an individual at a higher risk for suicide in the short term. These include: None of these circumstances necessarily lead to suicide. In fact, the overwhelming majority of people who experience one or more of these circumstances don't commit suicide and it's impossible to predict who will. But any life-upsetting blow can set a vulnerable individual on a self-destructive course. More »

The adolescent brain: Beyond raging hormones

Originally published in the Harvard Mental Health Letter, July 2005 In every generation, it seems, the same lament goes forth from the parents of adolescents: "What's the matter with kids today?" Why are they so often confused, annoying, demanding, moody, defiant, reckless? Accidental deaths, homicides, and binge drinking spike in the teenage years. It's the time of life when psychosis, eating disorders, and addictions are most likely to take hold. Surveys show that everyday unhappiness also reaches its peak in late adolescence. Plenty of explanations for teenage turmoil are available. Adolescents need to assert their independence and explore their limits, taking risks, breaking rules, and rebelling against their parents while still relying on them for support and protection. ("What's the matter with the older generation?") They have to cope with disconcerting new sexual impulses and romantic feelings. Cultural change heightens incompatibility between the generations. Now scientific research is suggesting a new reason for the clashes between teenagers and their environment. Unsettled moods and unsettling behavior may be rooted in uneven brain development. More »