Mental Illness

What is mental illness?

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), a mental illness is a medical condition that disrupts a person’s thinking, feeling, mood, ability to relate to others and daily functioning. Just as diabetes is a disorder of the pancreas, mental illnesses are medical conditions that often result in a diminished capacity for coping with the ordinary demands of life.

Mental illnesses, NAMI states, can affect people of any age, race, religion or income. Mental illnesses are not the result of personal weaknesses, lack of character or poor upbringing. Mental illnesses are treatable. Most individuals diagnosed with a serious mental illness can experience relief from their symptoms by actively participating in an individual treatment plan.

What are some of the serious types of mental illness?

 Serious mental conditions include major depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), panic/anxiety disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).


 Most individuals experience sadness and joy throughout their lives. However, major depression is a mood that goes beyond temporarily feeling sad. It is a medical illness that affects thoughts, feelings, behavior, mood and overall physical health.

According to NAMI, it is a life-long condition in which periods of wellness alternate with recurrences of illness.

Major depression is also known as “clinical depression,” major depressive illness, major affective disorder and unipolor mood disorder. It involves a combination of some of the following symptoms:

  • Depressed mood/sadness
  • Poor concentration
  • Insomnia
  • Fatigue
  • Changes in appetite
  • Excessive guilt
  • Thoughts of suicide

Some people may only have one episode of depression in a lifetime. Often these individuals with depression have recurrent episodes. More than one-half of these individuals who experience a first episode of depression will have at least one other episode during their lifetime. Others may have several episodes in the course of a year while others may have ongoing symptoms. If untreated, episodes commonly last from a few months to many years.

Bipolar disorder

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), bipolar disorder, also known as manic-depressive illness, is a brain disorder that causes unusual shifts in mood, energy, activity levels, and the ability to carry out daily tasks.

Symptoms of bipolar disorder are severe. They are different from the normal ups and downs that everyone goes through from time to time. Bipolar disorder symptoms can result in damaged relationships, poor job or school performance, and even suicide. But bipolar disorder can be treated, and people with this illness can lead full and productive lives.


Schizophrenia is a serious mental illness that affects 2.4 million American adults over the age of 18. It affects men and women with equal frequency; however, it most often appears in men during their late teens and early twenties. It typically appears in women during their late twenties and early thirties.

This illness interferes with a person’s ability to think clearly, manage his or her emotions, make decisions and relate to others. Schizophrenia impairs an individual’s ability to function to his or her full potential when it is not treated.

It is difficult to determine the cause or course of the illness because it is unique for each person. Additionally, there is no single or simple course of treatment that exists.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

OCD is characterized by repetitive, intrusive, irrational and unwanted thoughts and/or rituals. These obsessions seem impossible to control. Some individuals with OCD have specific compulsions like counting, arranging items or cleaning. These behaviors must be performed multiple times each day in order to momentarily alleviate their anxiety that something bad may happen to them or someone else if they do not complete these tasks.

Some people with OCD may be aware that the symptoms don’t make sense or are excessive, yet on some level, they fear that the negative consequences of not doing the activity may actually happen.

Anxiety Disorders

 Anxiety disorders are a group of mental illnesses that cause a person to feel excessively frightened, distressed or uneasy during situations that most people do not experience the same way. When left untreated, anxiety disorders

can severely impair or negatively affect a person’s ability to work, study or maintain relationships. These disorders can cause low self-esteem, lead to substance abuse and/or isolation from his or her family and friends.

Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illnesses in the United States. They affect approximately 20 percent of the population. There are many effective treatments for these disorders; however, some people do not seek treatment if they do not realize the severity or are ashamed.

Symptoms are often difficult to recognize by friends, family and even some doctors.

Other anxiety disorders include agoraphobia, acute stress disorder, anxiety due to medical conditions, such as thyroid abnormalities and substance-induced anxiety disorder, such as from too much caffeine.

Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

When a person experiences or witnesses a traumatic event such as abuse, natural disaster, war or extreme violence, it is normal to be distressed for some time after the experience. However, some people who experience these types of events have severe symptoms such as:

  • Nightmares
  • Flashbacks
  • Feelings of numbness/anger/irritability/distraction

These symptoms last for weeks or even months after the event. They can be so severe that they make it difficult for the person to work, have relationships or return to the normal life they once had. These are signs that they may be suffering from PTSD. These feelings or experiences are also common in victims of sexual abuse and combat veterans.


A phobia is a disabling and irrational fear of something that poses little or no danger for most people. Many people are very sensitive about being criticized and are often ashamed of their phobias.

What treatments and supports are available to individuals with mental illnesses?

 Millions of Americans live with various types of mental illness and mental health problems, such as social anxiety, OCD, drug addiction, and personality disorders. Treatment options include medication and psychotherapy.

Most people diagnosed with mental illness can experience relief from their symptoms by actively participating in an individual treatment plan. Numerous treatments are available. The choice and combination of services must be determined with the consultation of a health care provider and other medical professionals.

Mental illness is not cured by medications. However, medications can often improve symptoms significantly as well as help to promote recovery for most individuals.

How many individuals are affected by mental illness?

Approximately 11.4 million adult Americans suffered from severe mental illness in the past year and 8.7 million adults contemplated serious thoughts of suicide. Among them, more than 2 million made suicide plans and about 1 million attempted sucide.

According to a report from Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, one in five Americans have suffered from such severe mental illness that it interfered with day-to-day school, family and work.

Depression affects five to eight percent of the adults in the United States a year. Approximately 25 million Americans will have an episode of major depression this year alone. Only half of these individuals will seek or receive treatment.

Without treatment, the frequency and severity of these symptoms tend to increase over time. All age groups can experience depression.

Below are links to important national resources.

Helpful National Resources:

Please click on the names below to be directly linked to organizational websites.

Covenant House 
Phone: 1-800-999-9999

Crisis Call Center 
Phone: 1-800-273-8255

Hopeline Network 
Phone: 1-800-422-HOPE (1-800-422-4673)

National Runaway Safeline 
Phone: 1-800-RUNAWAY (1-800-786-2929)

National Suicide Prevention Hotline
Phone: 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255)

Boys Town Hotline
Phone: 1-800-448-3000

Veterans Crisis Line 
Phone: 1-800-273-8255 Press 1

The Samaritans
Phone (In the UK): 08457 90 90 90
Phone (In Ireland): 1850 60 90 90


Alcoholics Anonymous 
Phone: 1-212-870-3400

Narcotics Anonymous 
Phone: 1-818-773-9999 x771

Al-Anon/Alateen Family Group Services 

Phone: 1-800-356-9996, (888) 4AL-ANON (1-888-425-2666)

Nationwide Drug and Alcohol Treatment Center Hotline

Phone: 1-866-96-SOBER (1-866-967-6237)

National Association for Children of Alcoholics 
Phone: 1-888-554-COAS (1-888-554-2627)

Domestic and Child Abuse

Between Friends 

Phone: 1-800-603-HELP, (800) 603-4357

National Domestic Violence Hotline 
Phone: 1-800-799-SAFE (1-800-799-7233), (800) 787-3224 (TTY)

Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network

Phone: 1-800-656-HOPE (1-800-656-4673)

Childhelp USA (Chlld Abuse Reporting Numbers by State)
Phone: 1-800-4-A-CHILD (1-800-422-4453)

Child Welfare Information Gateway 
Phone: 1-800-394-3366

National Center for Missing & Exploited Children 
Phone: 1-800-THE-LOST (1-800-843-5678)

Child Find of America 
Phone: 1-800-I-AM-LOST (1-800-426-5678)

National Center on Elder Abuse 
Phone: 1-855-500-ELDR (1-855-500-3537)

National Organization for Victim Assistance 
Phone: 1-800-TRY-NOVA (1-800-879-6682)

Eating Disorders

National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD)
Phone: 1-630-577-1330

Bulimia and Self-Help Hotline
Phone: 1-314-588-1683 (24-hour crisis line)

National Eating Disorders Association 
Phone: 1-800-931-2237

Elder Care

American Association of Retired Persons (AARP)  Phone: 1-888-OUR-AARP (1-888-687-2277)

Eldercare Locator Information and Referral Line 
Phone: 1-800-677-1116

Hospice Education Institute 
Phone: 1-800-331-1620

Medicare Telephone Hotline

Phone: 1-800-MEDICARE (1-800-633-4227), TTY/TDD (877) 486-2048

National Council on Aging 
Phone: 1-202-479-1200

National Institute on Aging Information Center
Phone: 1-800-222-2225

SAMHSA’s National Mental Health Information Center 
Phone: 1-877-SAMHSA-7 (1-877-726-4727)

Mental Health America 
Phone: 1-800-969-6642

Missing Children

Child Find of America
Phone: 1-800-I-AM-LOST (1-800-426-5678)

National Center for Missing & Exploited Children
Phone: 1-800-THE-LOST (1-800-843-5678)

National Council on Child Abuse and Family Violence
Phone: 1-800-422-4453 (child abuse), 1-800-799-7233 (domestic violence), (800) 787-3244 (TTY)

Helpful Mental Health Resources in New Jersey:

Carrier Clinic or 1-800-933-3579

Mental Health Association of New Jersey or 1-800-367-8850

NAMI or 1-800-950-NAMI


PLEASE NOTE: This is not a complete list. A.S.K. does not endorse any of these organizations. We have listed them for informational purposes. Seek the assistance of a board-certified physician or professional for appropriate diagnostic and treatment options.