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

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 »

Treating obsessive-compulsive disorder

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), which affects 2% to 3% of people worldwide, often causes suffering for years before it is treated correctly — both because of delays in diagnosis and because patients may be reluctant to seek help.Although OCD tends to be a chronic condition, with symptoms that flare up and subside over a patient's lifetime, effective help is available. Only about 10% of patients recover completely, but 50% improve with treatment. As the name implies, OCD is characterized by two hallmark symptoms. Obsessions are recurring and disturbing thoughts, impulses, or images that cause significant anxiety or distress. Compulsions are feelings of being driven to repeat behaviors, usually following rigid rules (such as washing hands multiple times after each meal). When these symptoms interfere with work, social activities, and personal relationships, it is time to consider treatment. For initial treatment of OCD, the APA recommends cognitive behavioral therapy, drug therapy with selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), or a combination of the two. More »

Treating obsessive-compulsive disorder

  Obsessive-compulsive disorder may take years to diagnose, partly because its symptoms are similar to those of other disorders. Many patients who receive treatment (typically behavioral therapy, medications, or a combination) experience improvement.   More »

Treating preschoolers with psychiatric disorders

Because of the rapid pace of brain development in preschoolers, particular care must be used when prescribing them medications for psychiatric conditions or disorders. Psychotherapy should be attempted before prescribing any medication. More »

Thyroid deficiency and mental health

Researchers are exploring a potential link between thyroid deficiency and mental health problems. Though the findings are inconsistent, there is evidence that thyroid medication can help those with depression, even if their thyroid function is normal. More »

The negative symptoms of schizophrenia

While the positive symptoms of schizophrenia are more obvious, negative symptoms are more troubling to those with the disease, and limit their ability to function normally in the world. More »