The symptoms of mental illnesses are as numerous and varied as the conditions themselves. The newest version of official classification of mental diseases published by the American Psychiatric Organization, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM-5, contains more than 300 distinct disorders in 947 pages. It is estimated that more than one in four American adults suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in any year. Typically, a mental illness is characterized by one or more of the following features:
- Withdrawal: Any recent social withdrawal and loss of interest in others or previous activities.
- Drop in functioning. An unusual or unexpected drop in functioning at school, work or social activities, such as quitting sports, failing in school, or difficulty performing familiar tasks.
- Problems thinking. Problems with concentration, memory, or logical thought and speech that are hard to explain.
- Increased sensitivity. A recent heightened sensitivity to sights, sounds, smells or touch, and an avoidance of over-stimulating situations.
- Apathy. A recent loss of initiative or desire to participate in any activity.
- Feeling disconnected. A vague feeling of being disconnected from oneself or one’s surroundings, and/or a sense of unreality
- Illogical thinking. Unusual or exaggerated beliefs about personal powers to understand meanings or influence events, and/or illogical or “magical” thinking typical of childhood in an adult.
- Nervousness. Fear or suspiciousness of others or a strong nervous feeling without a reasonable explanation.
- Unusual behavior. Odd, uncharacteristic, peculiar behavior that is unexplained and/or harmful.
- Sleep or appetite changes. Dramatic sleep and appetite changes or decline in personal care.
- Mood changes. Rapid or dramatic shifts in feelings, often without logical reason.
There are various facts important to understand about mental illness. Firstly, mental illness is not shameful or untreatable. Many people suffer from some form of psychological malaise. Most conditions are highly treatable with willingness from the patient and support from those around him or her.
Secondly, mental illness is a disease and not a choice or a character flaw. Most mental disorders have a strong biological/genetic component that predisposes a person to psychological problems. It renders some people less capable to weather life’s storms, such as a traumatic childhood or difficult times as an adult. By accepting a person with a mental illness unconditionally, we validate and empower that person to be motivated to work toward change. It is not easy and most people need help. This is exactly what this course is about. To enable you, as a partner, relative, or friend, to assist someone close to you so that they can achieve positive change.
Next, we try to understand what it is like to live with a mental illness.