What is Mental Illness

We are so honored to serve you and although your path in getting here may not have been easy, you are in the right place. And you are not alone.

The lines are often blurred as to what mental illness is and what it is not. According to the national NAMI organization (of which we are a Quad Cities affiliate), mental illness is a condition that affects a person’s thinking, feeling, behavior, or mood. These conditions deeply impact day-to-day living and may also affect their ability to relate to others.

Mental health conditions are far more common than it might seem. Mainly because of the stigma surrounding them, people shy away from openly talking about them but the facts may surprise you.

  • 1 in 5 adults experience mental illness each year
  • 1 in 20 adults experience serious mental illness each year
  • 1 in 6 youth aged 6-17 experience a mental health disorder each year
  • 50% of all lifetime mental illness begins by age 14, and 75% by age 24

So, what causes it and what types of mental illnesses are there?

Multiple linking causes such as genetics, environment and lifestyle can all play a role. Traumatic events and even a stressful work or home life can make some people more susceptible. Then there are biochemical processes and the basic structure of the brain that can contribute, also.

Types of mental illnesses include:

  • Adjustment Disorder
  • Anxiety Disorders
  • ADHD
  • Bipolar Disorder
  • Borderline Personality Disorder
  • Dissociative Disorders
  • Eating Disorders
  • Emotional Disorder
  • Mood Disorder
  • Obsessive-compulsive Disorder
  • Posttraumatic Stress Disorder
  • Psychosis
  • Schizoaffective Disorder
  • Schizophrenia
  • Substance Use Disorder

The good news is that none of this means that you’re broken or that you or your family members did anything wrong. There is no fault or blame in mental illness. And for many people, recovery — social life, school and work — is possible. Early detection and treatment are especially helpful as is your involvement in your own recovery process.

NOTE: At NAMI, we intentionally use the terms “mental health conditions” and “mental illness/es” interchangeably.

Family Mental Illness

It’s important to know the warning signs when it comes to family mental illnesses. Spotting them can be difficult and there’s no test that can confirm what you might be thinking.

Common signs of mental illness in adults and adolescents can include:

  • Excessive worrying or fear
  • Feeling excessively sad or low
  • Confused thinking or problems concentrating and learning
  • Extreme mood changes (mood disorder), including uncontrollable “highs” or feelings of euphoria
  • Prolonged or strong feelings of irritability or anger
  • Avoiding friends and social activities (social anxiety)
  • Difficulties understanding or relating to other people
  • Changes in sleeping habits or feeling tired and low energy
  • Changes in eating habits such as increased hunger or lack of appetite
  • Changes in sex drive
  • Difficulty perceiving reality (delusions or hallucinations, in which a person experiences and senses things that don’t exist in objective reality)
  • Inability to perceive changes in one’s own feelings, behavior or personality (”lack of insight” or anosognosia)
  • Dissociative disorders
  • Substance use disorder* (alcohol or drugs)
  • Multiple physical ailments without obvious causes (such as headaches, stomach aches, vague and ongoing “aches and pains”)
  • Suicidal thoughts**
  • Inability to carry out daily activities or handle daily problems and stress
  • Intense fear of weight gain or concern with appearance
Should any of these signs present for you or a loved one, we can help. If there are thoughts of suicide, however, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) or call 911 immediately.

Parenting a Child with Mental Illness

As you saw above and possibly in your own child’s life, mental health illnesses can begin as early as six years old. Because they are not always able to identify their feelings and talk about their thoughts, most parents observe behavioral symptoms, such as:

  • Changes in school performance
  • Excessive worry or anxiety, for instance, fighting to avoid bed or school
  • Hyperactive behavior
  • Frequent nightmares
  • Frequent disobedience or aggression
  • Frequent temper tantrums
  • Inability to build or maintain interpersonal relationships with peers and/or teachers (emotional disorder)
We want to remind you that early detection is extremely helpful and treatment is often successful when started at a young age.

College Students and Mental Illness

It has been said that mental illness has a “second hit.” The first instance or signs may not be noticeable because it’s seemingly dormant. The second hit is typically more noticeable. Meaning, you can’t stop what’s already started biologically in the brain, but symptoms may not present until something traumatic happens in one’s life.

Sometimes, the transition to college and being away from home is the second hit (adjustment disorder). Or something like the COVID-19 pandemic can act as the trigger. Before your college-aged child knows it or understands what’s happening, it morphs into bipolar disorder, depression, etc.

Going back to early detection, the average time of symptom onset to treatment is 11 years. It’s important to know that depression (and other mental illnesses) is not age sensitive and, in addition to medical condition history, external factors can trigger it. Remember the stat above: 50% of all lifetime mental illness begins by age 14, and 75% by age 24. So, the traditional college student falls right into that age range.

As hard as it is, if your college student is a threat to himself or herself or others, you must call 911. This is not said lightly but sometimes it’s the only way to get them the help they need. They are often in denial that they have a mental illness, and it doesn’t help that there is a stigma associated with it (especially with their peers).

Sometimes, they cannot see in their own mind that there is a problem. People with mental illness can get stuck in their old self-image from before the illness started. It might cause them to feel like everyone else is lying or mistaken. The term for this is anosognosia.

From the national NAMI organization, “When we talk about anosognosia in mental illness, we mean that someone is unaware of their own mental health condition or that they can’t perceive their condition accurately. Anosognosia is a common symptom of certain mental illnesses, perhaps the most difficult to understand for those who have never experienced it.”

In addition to NAMI, another great resource is the American Psychiatric Association.

* Substance Abuse And Mental Health Services Administration

** Suicide hotline