Understanding The Signs Of Mental Illness And How To Get A Diagnosis

If you think you are experiencing the effects of a mental illness, it's important to know that you aren't alone and help is available.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), 43.8 million, or one in five, adults in the US will experience mental illness each year¹.

It's important to know the possible signs of a mental illness and what to do if you or a loved one are struggling.

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What are the signs of mental illness?

There are many types of mental illness, and while there can be some overlap of symptoms, each condition has its own unique criteria for diagnosis. Without the expertise of a mental health professional, it can be difficult to diagnose a mental illness. However, there are warning signs that could indicate you have a mental health concern that may require further assessment.

As outlined by The Mayo Clinic², signs and symptoms of a mental illness may include (but are not limited to):

  • Feeling sad for an extended period of time

  • Not being able to concentrate

  • Feeling confused or disoriented

  • Persistent feelings of worry, guilt, or fear

  • Avoiding social events or withdrawing from friends

  • Not being able to cope with daily tasks or stress

  • Being detached from reality or experiencing hallucinations

  • Changes in appetite, sleeping patterns, or sex drive

  • Mood swings from very high to very low 

  • Feelings of anger or hostility

  • Becoming violent

  • Having thoughts of suicide

If you are experiencing significant changes in your mood or find yourself unable to cope with daily life, it is important to make an appointment with your primary care doctor or a mental health professional as soon as possible.

If you have thoughts of suicide or harming someone else, call 911 or go to your nearest emergency room urgently.

How is mental illness diagnosed? 

There is no way to test for mental illness as you would for physical medical conditions, such as diabetes or cancer. Instead, your healthcare team will have you undergo a series of physical and psychological evaluations to determine whether you have a mental illness and the most likely diagnosis.

The process of getting a diagnosis depends on your personal circumstances, but it generally involves:

Physical exam

Your doctor may give you a thorough physical examination and run some additional diagnostic tests to rule out any underlying causes of your mental health issues. Some conditions, such as an issue with your thyroid gland, may present with symptoms that are consistent with a mental health concern.

When your doctor has ruled out any physical causes, they may diagnose you or refer you to a specialist mental health care provider for a diagnosis.

Psychological or psychiatric exam

During your initial visit with a mental health professional, they will have you undergo a mental health screening. They will want to know about the symptoms you are experiencing, along with your family and medical histories.

A mental health professional may need to see you a few times before they can provide an accurate diagnosis. They will use a guide such as The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition (DSM-5)³ to help determine a diagnosis. It is common for mental health disorders to occur together, known as comorbidity.

Once you have been given a diagnosis for a mental health condition, your mental health professional can help to create a treatment plan for you based on your symptoms. This may involve medication, therapy, and/or lifestyle changes.

It's important to stick with the treatment plan because it can take weeks, or even months before you see results. Your healthcare provider should continue to monitor your symptoms to make sure you are getting the most effective treatment.

Should I get diagnosed?

While it can be daunting to know that you have a mental illness, getting diagnosed can be a powerful tool for you to get the help you need, including:

  • Gaining access to treatment through your insurance company

  • Better understanding why you are feeling a certain way

  • Helping you regulate your reactions to situations and take control of your emotions

  • Giving you a treatment plan for easing symptoms or coping with your condition

  • Accessing disability benefits and additional support

While getting a diagnosis for a mental illness can help you get the support and treatment that you need, you may feel uncomfortable with the label. You may worry about the social stigma attached to mental illness or have concerns that your support network will treat you differently once they find out.

Be assured that the pros of being diagnosed with a mental illness far outweigh any cons. Don't let any potential drawbacks prevent you from taking advantage of the support that is now available to you to set you on the path to recovery.

Remember that mental illness is extremely common and taking care of your mental health is associated with increased emotional and physical well-being.

If you choose not to get diagnosed, it's important to know that you don't have to label your mental health before you can get help. While a diagnostic label could help you to access insurance and other benefits, a therapist can treat you without providing a diagnosis. 

What is mental health screening?

A mental health screening is like a physical exam for your mental health. It generally involves some combination of a structured interview and self-reporting questionnaires. Your screening could be brief or it may be more involved.

Brief screenings may help your doctor determine whether you need to see a mental health professional for a more intensive screening. These intensive screenings help mental health professionals like psychologists and psychiatrists accurately diagnose you with a mental illness.

Screening interviews and questionnaires also guide your treatment plan and inform your doctor about the best possible options for you moving forward.

Your healthcare provider may use different screening tools depending on which symptoms you have. During a mental health screening, your healthcare professional will ask you to answer a series of questions which are generally about your:

  • Symptoms

  • Feelings

  • Family's mental health history

  • Medical history

  • Overall functioning

Your healthcare provider will use training guides, like the DSM-5, and your answers to narrow in on a diagnosis. Your diagnosis could adjust over time as your mental health professional becomes more familiar with your symptoms or if your symptoms change.

Who can diagnose mental illness?

Your primary care physician or family doctor can diagnose some mental health concerns, such as depression and anxiety. They may decide to refer you to a mental health professional for a more comprehensive mental health screening and diagnosis, as they are specialists in this area.

The mental health professional could be a:

  • Psychologist – Who can provide a diagnosis and provide therapy, but can't prescribe medication to treat it.

  • Psychiatrist – Who can diagnose a mental illness and prescribe medication to treat it.

If you aren't already working with a mental health professional, your doctor can recommend you to a service in your local area. 

What should I do if I think I have a mental illness?

If you think you may have a mental illness, the first step is to talk to your doctor. Make an appointment and discuss your symptoms with them. They will be able to perform a physical examination to rule out physical causes, then refer you to a mental health professional for further screening and to receive a diagnosis.

You can also begin to support yourself with self-help books, wellness activities (such as meditation and yoga), and joining a support group. However, these should be viewed as supplemental activities along with an individualized treatment plan from a healthcare professional if you have been diagnosed with a mental illness.

Seeking treatment as early as possible improves your quality of life and can help to prevent complications or your symptoms becoming more severe the longer you wait.

In many cases, there is no cure for mental illness. While some people will experience short bouts with mental illness, others may have chronic symptoms that require constant management.

Whatever the case, learning how to effectively manage your symptoms is essential to improving your outlook and quality of life. There are many treatment options that can reduce the severity of your symptoms and better equip you for the day-to-day management of your illness.

The lowdown 

Mental illness affects around one in five adults in the US, impacting your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. There are many types of mental illness that all have different signs, symptoms, and treatment approaches, so it is important to get the right diagnosis.

While mental illnesses cannot necessarily be cured, there are effective treatment options available. The first step is getting a diagnosis from your doctor or mental health professional. A mental illness diagnosis can guide your treatment and give you access to insurance and other benefits to support your recovery.

If you think you may have a mental illness, make an appointment with your doctor to discuss your symptoms. If you are struggling with thoughts of suicide, urgently call 911 or go to your nearest emergency room.

  1. Mental Health Facts in America | National Alliance on Mental Illness

  2. Mental illness | Mayo Clinic

  3. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5) | American Psychiatric Association

  4. What mental illness do I have? | Mental Health America

  5. How do I know if I have a mental illness? | Mental Health America

  6. Understanding Your Diagnosis | National Alliance on Mental Illness

  7. Talking to Your Doctor About Your Mental Health | Family Doctor.org

  8. Mental Health Screening | Medline Plus

  9. Mental Disorders | Medline Plus

  10. Adult health | Mayo Clinic

  11. Warning Signs and Symptoms | National Alliance on Mental Illness

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