Mental health is a combination of our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It has a vital effect on the way we live our day-to-day lives, our school and work performance, relationships and social interactions, medical conditions, ability to solve problems, and quality of life.
Our mental health changes over time and depends on many factors, including life experiences, history of mental health issues, and environmental factors.
Taking good care of your mental health can help to prevent or reduce the effects of mental illness – but you can have poor mental health without developing a mental illness.
Mental illness is a blanket term for health conditions that affect the way a person thinks, behaves, and interacts with others. Mental illnesses are diagnosed through a formal assessment by a mental health practitioner, such as a psychologist or psychiatrist.
Besides having a negative effect on a person's quality of life, mental illnesses have major economic consequences in the US and globally as they can impact all areas of a person’s daily functioning at a cost to themselves, employers, and the healthcare system, and can require treatment.
Common types of mental illnesses are:
Anxiety disorders – phobias, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), panic disorder
Mood disorders – depression, bipolar disorder, substance-induced mood disorder
Eating disorders – anorexia, bulimia, binge-eating
Trauma-induced disorders – post-traumatic stress disorder, acute stress disorder
Psychotic disorders – schizophrenia, brief psychotic disorder, delusional disorder
Personality disorders – paranoid, schizoid, schizotypal, antisocial, OCPD (obsessive-compulsive personality disorder
Dissociation and dissociative disorders – dissociative amnesia, dissociative fugue, depersonalization, and dissociative identity disorder
Neurodevelopment disorders – attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism spectrum disorder, and learning disorders
Poor mental health doesn’t only have psychological symptoms. It can also cause physical health problems, including:
High blood pressure
Weight gain or weight loss
People with mental health problems are also at a higher risk of developing serious chronic diseases, such as diabetes, asthma, and arthritis.
However, those who experience mental health issues and related physical problems often dismiss their symptoms or don’t seek help, which can lead to more issues. These can include having problems at school or work and struggling with maintaining healthy relationships.
The lack of mental health literacy leads to significant mental health stigma and self-stigma. Unwillingness to seek help or lack of access to mental health care can lead to complications and exacerbation of symptoms over time. By engaging in preventative care for your mental health and addressing any symptoms that arise with health care providers or through self-care measures, you can ease symptoms and improve your quality of life.
Symptoms of mental health problems aren't always obvious but there are often warning signs. Many people ignore the signs only to find themselves struggling with an illness that requires professional attention.
While a mental health problem doesn't necessarily turn into a mental illness, it can significantly reduce your quality of life if not resolved.
The common signs of poor mental health include:
Problems with concentration
Problems with making decisions
Apathy toward daily activities
Lack of energy
Changes in sleep patterns (insomnia or sleeping longer)
Difficulty controlling your emotions
Changes in appetite
If you notice any of these warning signs, you should consider how you are feeling and what steps you can take to improve your mental health and overall well-being. While symptoms can go away on their own, they sometimes lead to mental illness, so it is important to address them as soon as possible.
The following symptoms could signal the development of a mental illness:
Extreme mood shifts
Feeling disconnected from yourself and your surroundings
Heightened emotional sensitivity
Inability to complete regular tasks, work, or study
Apathy toward things that used to trigger positive or negative emotions
Excessive fatigue even if you've been resting
Aggression without cause
Decreased sex drive
While these symptoms don't necessarily mean that you have a mental illness, leaving them unaddressed could lead to serious mental and physical health issues. If any of these symptoms impact your quality of life at any time, it’s best to talk to a health professional to get support.
If you notice signs of poor mental health that are worsening over time or negatively impacting your life, you should seek the advice of a mental health professional or your family doctor.
It's important to understand that there is no shame in seeking professional assistance. Taking the first step to seek help means you can resolve a problem that could have significant negative impacts on your life if left unaddressed.
Mental health issues generally don’t have one main cause. The following risk factors may contribute or lead to poor mental health:
Mental illnesses often run in the family. If one of your close family members suffers or has suffered, from mental health problems, you have a higher chance of facing these issues yourself compared to those without a family history. The severity of the symptoms can vary depending on your personal circumstances.
Drugs and alcohol are widely known to have a negative effect on your mental health. Regular use or abuse of certain substances could contribute to the development of serious mental health disorders, such as schizophrenia and depression.
Experiencing abuse (in childhood and adulthood) is a major factor that contributes to developing mental health problems.
External circumstances, such as financial issues, work stress, or family issues could have a negative effect on your mental health. More often than not, people who deal with high amounts of stress have an increased risk of developing mental health problems.
Sleep problems make you more prone to mental health issues as they contribute to deteriorating mental health. A study conducted by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine¹ showed that with every additional night of insufficient sleep, the risk of experiencing mental health symptoms increased by 20%.
All the above factors increase your likelihood of developing mental health disorders. By addressing them at the earliest opportunity, you can improve your mental health and avoid serious consequences.
Other potential causes or contributors to mental disorders include:
Scientists have been exploring the gene-related nature of mental disorders for many years. In a 2013 study², it was found that genetic variations were associated with five major mental disorders, including ADHD, autism, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and depression. However, even if you have these variations, it doesn't mean you will develop a mental illness.
Dealing with a stressful environment over a long period of time triggers continuous stress in the brain. Examples of stress include living with an abusive family, caring for a relative with a severe mental health disorder, facing harassment at work, and struggling with financial difficulties.
Events such as losing a loved one, being in a car accident, surviving a fire, witnessing a crime, and can lead to mental health problems. If you have a genetic predisposition to mental illness, these events can easily trigger it.
Problems with physical health often affect a person's mental health. Long-term physical conditions (cancer, diabetes, AIDS) could cause mental health to worsen. Meanwhile, chronic pain often leads to anxiety, depression, and other mental illnesses.
Traumatic brain injury
In some cases, a traumatic brain injury could cause certain mental health problems, including major depression, mania, OCD, PTSD, and psychotic disorders.
Many of the symptoms of mental health disorders are partially explained by chemical imbalances that develop in the brain. Treatments including antidepressants can help ease symptoms by restoring brain chemicals to optimal levels.
To diagnose a mental illness, doctors conduct mental health screenings. Screenings can include:
Information about past physical and mental health issues as well as family history of mental disorders can help your doctor evaluate any predisposition you may have to mental illnesses and choose the best course of treatment for you.
In some cases, physical disorders can cause symptoms that are similar to the signs of mental illness. A physical exam can help your doctor determine if physical issues could be causing or complementing the symptoms.
To rule out a physical condition, a doctor may order bloodwork, urine tests, and brain scans.
Assessments are the most common way mental health disorders are diagnosed. A mental health professional asks a set of questions about your emotions, feelings, and behaviors while observing the way you respond.
In some instances, a series of tests may be performed to evaluate your functioning across different areas of life.
There are also numerous mental screening options available online. While they can help understand whether you may need professional assistance, these tests can't be used to diagnose a mental illness. Only a mental health professional can diagnose and treat mental health disorders.
Many effective treatments and therapies are available if you have a mental health issue.
By learning and engaging in self-care techniques, you can lessen the symptoms and also feel prepared for dealing with any recurring symptoms in the future. Techniques include:
Focusing on your physical health
Regular exercise, a healthy diet, sufficient sleep, and regular medical checkups can prevent serious health issues. Keeping your physical health in good shape can help prevent or reduce many symptoms.
Building healthy relationships
Making healthy emotional connections with other people builds strong social support which you can lean on when you face stressful events or other issues that could worsen your mental health.
Learning relaxation techniques
Deep breathing, yoga, music therapy, progressive muscle relaxation, and other techniques can help you keep your mental health in good shape. They can also help you to deal with problems that cause mental health disorders. Relaxation techniques require practice, so the earlier you start learning, the better.
Asking for help
When things seem too difficult to handle, many people continue struggling through the task, worsening their mental health in the process. To avoid this, you need to learn how to ask for help as soon as issues start to present.
You can only take so much stress and pressure. It is important to learn how to take time out to recharge to prevent things from becoming overwhelming. A change of scene can help you regain your focus and improve your mental health to avoid issues.
It may be hard to stay positive through stressful stages of life. However, you can learn how to promote positive emotions and use techniques such as positive affirmations to help rewire your thinking in a positive manner.
These steps can help improve negative mental health or serve as preventive measures. However, if symptoms persist, you may need to seek mental disorder treatments.
After conducting a mental health screening, if your doctor determines that you have a mental illness, they may suggest one or a combination of the following treatment options.
Medication can help alleviate or even eliminate the symptoms of mental health disorders. Medication may be used on its own or in combination with therapy and other interventions.
Common types of medication used to treat mental disorders include:
As all of the above medications can have side effects and contraindications, you need to discuss them with your doctor and follow their advice.
Psychotherapy or “talk therapy” is an effective treatment for many types of mental disorders, including PTSD, depression, and anxiety. Studies¹ show that 75% of people who undergo psychotherapy benefit from it.
Common types of psychotherapy include:
Dialectical behavior therapy
Acceptance and commitment therapy
Psychotherapy involves sessions with mental health specialists. The type of therapy and number of sessions depends on the type and severity of the mental health issue and your individual needs. Therapy can be administered in combination with medication.
Brain stimulation therapy
Brain stimulation therapy involves activating or inhibiting the brain with electrical currents. This therapy can help treat a number of mental illnesses, especially depression. Common types of brain stimulation therapies are transcranial magnetic stimulation and vagus nerve stimulation, which both show great promise for treating mental health problems that do not respond well to medication.
Psychiatric in-patient care
While it's possible to treat many mental disorders on an outpatient basis, some people respond better to in-patient care. If you are experiencing a mental health crisis, a stay in a hospital can keep you safe while ensuring you receive the right treatment.
Psychiatric in-patient care isn't something you need to be ashamed of. More often than not, it's only required for a short period of time until it becomes safe to continue treatment at home.
While mental illness can't always be prevented, you can take steps to improve your mental health and manage the symptoms, including:
Smoking, drinking alcohol, and using drugs can contribute to mental health problems. If you are planning to quit smoking, drinking, or using drugs, make sure to get help.
Severe withdrawal from substance use could also contribute to mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression.
Learning a new skill or taking up a new hobby can have a positive effect on your mental health by increasing positive emotions and your quality of life.
When you find yourself in a stressful situation, do your best to engage in relaxation techniques or remove yourself from the situation where possible. Deep breathing exercises are a quick and effective way to calm your body.
Studies¹ have shown that regular meditation can reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety. Meditation is also a very effective means for improving patience and cognitive control in highly stressful situations.
While not always possible, you can try to avoid situations that could trigger mental health issues. These situations include abusive relationships, stressful situations at work, and even certain tastes, smells, and noises.
Being aware of mental health issues can help you to understand and recognize symptoms of poor mental health in yourself so you can take steps to fix them. While there is unfortunately still a stigma surrounding mental illness, this is lessening as more and more people are openly talking about their experiences and sharing knowledge about mental health.
Awareness is highly important to preventing and treating mental health conditions. Unfortunately, mental disorders in the US and around the world are often still stigmatized, and psychoeducation is underutilized or nonexistent in the school systems.
People are often cautious to seek medical assistance, hoping that the problem will disappear on its own.
When people learn about mental health issues, risk factors, and triggers, they are more likely to recognize the symptoms and seek assistance. This helps to reduce the severity of the mental illness and shorten the treatment cycle for recovery.
Many organizations make it their mission to raise awareness of mental health and mental illness in the US:
World Health Organization — organizes awareness events on World Mental Health Day.
Mental Health America — has organized events during Mental Health Month since 1949.
National Alliance of Mental Illness — organizes awareness events during Mental Health Awareness Month.
There are also many social media platforms creating communities for people to share openly about their experiences with mental illness.
Mental health is as important as physical health and deserves just as much attention. It is also important to recognize how interlinked they are. By raising awareness of mental health, it's possible to prevent serious consequences and improve the quality of life for millions of people worldwide.
20% of adults in the US experience mental illness every year¹ while 5% experience serious mental illness every year¹.
Anxiety disorder is the most common mental illness in the US¹.
About 8.4 million Americans provide care to a person with mental and emotional health issues¹.
Women are 40% more likely to develop a mental disorder than men².
The prevalence of serious mental illness is higher among women than men³.
Depression is one of the most common causes of disability worldwide⁴.
9.7% of youth in the US have severe major depression⁵.
Mental health in the US is worsening across all age groups⁵.
Psychotherapy is considered the most effective, but highly underutilized, treatment option for mental illnesses⁶.
Only about 44% of adults with mental health problems seek professional mental health assistance¹.
More females (49.7%) with mental health issues engage with mental health services than men (36.8%)¹.
Mental Health By the Numbers | National Alliance on Mental Illness
Mental Illness | NIH: National Institute of Mental Health
Mental Disorders | World Health Organization
The State Of Mental Health In America | Mental Health America
Recognition of Psychotherapy Effectiveness | American Psychological Association
Many specialists are involved in treating mental illnesses, including:
Primary care physicians are usually your first port of call when you experience symptoms of mental illness. They can conduct a basic mental health assessment and refer you to a mental health specialist if necessary.
Primary care physicians work together with other mental health experts to determine the right course of treatment.
Psychiatrists are medical doctors with expertise in mental health who can help to:
Diagnose a mental illness
Set up a course of treatment
Prescribe and monitor medications (in some states)
Admit you to a hospital if necessary
Psychiatrists treat all mental health issues, including complex conditions, such as bipolar disorder, severe depression, and schizophrenia.
Clinical psychologists are specialists in emotional, mental, and behavioral health. They can assess, diagnose, and treat various mental illnesses. The main type of treatment they focus on is psychotherapy.
You can also seek help from social workers, licensed therapists, religious leaders, counselors, and even holistic medicine providers.
Finding the right mental health specialist isn't always easy. Here are a few things to do when searching for the right therapist:
Use online directories like American Psychological Association or Psychology Today.
Ask your primary care physician for recommendations.
Verify the therapist's license (you can do it here) and credentials.
Try different people or techniques until you find what works for you.
Even if a therapist comes highly recommended, the two of you may not always "click." If you don't feel comfortable with a chosen psychologist, it's perfectly normal to look for another.
To get mental health assistance in your area, you can call SAMHSA Treatment Referral Helpline at 1-877-SAMHSA7 (1-877-726-4727). To reach a crisis counselor, text "HELLO" to 741741.