What is Mental Illness?

What is
Mental Illness?

Mental illness, like physical illnesses, is on a continuum of severity ranging from mild to moderate to severe.  More than 60 million Americans have a mental illness in any given year.  Mental illness affects one in four adults and one in five children.  Very few people, however actually seek treatment for mental illness.  The stigma associated with mental illness is still the biggest barrier that prevents people from getting treatment or retaining their treatment.

Mental Illness Defined

A mental illness is a disease of the brain that causes mild to severe disturbances in thought and/or behavior, resulting in an inability to cope with life’s ordinary demands and routines.  There are more than 200 classified forms of mental illness. Some of the more common disorders are:  clinical depression, bipolar disorder, dementia, schizophrenia and anxiety disorders.  Symptoms may include changes in mood, personality, personal habits and/or social withdrawal.

Possible Causes of Mental Illness

Mental health problems may be related to excessive stress due to a particular situation or series of events. As with cancer, diabetes and heart disease, mental illnesses are often physical as well as emotional and psychological. Mental illnesses may be caused by a reaction to environmental stresses, genetic factors, biochemical imbalances, or a combination of these. With proper care and treatment many individuals learn to cope or recover from a mental illness or emotional disorder.

Warning Signs and Symptoms of Mental Illness

NOTE: Persons with mental illness usually exhibit a cluster of symptoms – not just one or two symptoms – that are persistent and interfere with daily life and work.  This listing of warning signs and symptoms of mental illness is to be used as an educational and information tool – not as a diagnostic instrument.  A diagnostic evaluation by a licensed mental health and/or medical professional is needed to determine if someone has a mental illness.  A diagnostic evaluation may include:  (a) a complete physical checkup to rule out other illnesses; (b) information gathering on family health history; and (c) other diagnostic tests/evaluations as determined by a licensed professional.

Warning Signs & Symptoms of Mental Illness


  • Confused thinking
  • Prolonged depression (sadness or irritability)
  • Feelings of extreme highs and lows
  • Excessive fears, worries and anxieties
  • Social withdrawal
  • Dramatic changes in eating or sleeping habits
  • Strong feelings of anger
  • Delusions or hallucinations
  • Growing inability to cope with daily problems and activities
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Denial of obvious problems
  • Numerous unexplained physical ailments
  • Substance abuse


  • Substance abuse
  • Inability to cope with problems and daily activities
  • Changes in sleeping and/or eating habits
  • Excessive complaints of physical ailments
  • Defiance of authority, truancy, theft, and/or vandalism
  • Intense fear of weight gain
  • Prolonged negative mood, often accompanied by poor appetite or thoughts of death
  • Frequent outbursts of anger

Younger Children

  • Changes in school performance
  • Poor grades despite strong efforts
  • Excessive worry or anxiety (i.e. refusing to go to bed or school)
  • Hyperactivity
  • Persistent nightmares
  • Persistent disobedience or aggression
  • Frequent temper tantrums

Contact the Mental Health Association in Forsyth County at (336) 768-3880 for more information and/or referrals to mental-health specialists.  Our staff will be more than happy to help you find a mental health provider that best meets your needs.

“Mental illness is real, mental illness is common and mental illness is treatable!”

The Five Major Categories of Mental Illness.

Mental illness, like physical illnesses, is on a continuum of severity.  More than 60  million Americans have a mental illness in any given year, although very few actually seek treatment.  The statistic most often quoted is that one in four adults and one in five children will have a mental health disorder at some point in their lives.  The stigma associated with mental illness is still the biggest barrier that prevents people from getting treatment or retaining their treatment.

Success Treatment Rates – Ranges

  • Schizophrenia – 45 – 60%
  • Major Depression – 65 – 80%
  • Bipolar Disorder – 80%
  • Panic Disorder – 70-90%

While there are over 200 classified forms of mental illness, the five (5) major categories of mental illness are:


All of us encounter anxiety in many forms throughout the course of our routine activities.  However, the mechanisms that regulate anxiety may break down in a wide variety of circumstances, leading to excessive or inappropriate expressions of anxiety.  An anxiety disorder may exist if the anxiety experienced is disproportionate to the circumstance, is difficult for the individual to control, or interferes with normal functioning.

More than 19 million American adults are affected by an anxiety disorder.  Children and adolescents also develop anxiety disorders.  People with anxiety disorders also have other physical or mental disorders such as:  depression, eating disorders, substance abuse, cancer or heart disease as examples.

Specific anxiety disorders include:

Generalized Anxiety Disorder

People with Generalized Anxiety Disorder have chronic, exaggerated worry about everyday routine life events and activities, with symptoms lasting at least six months; almost always anticipating the worst even though there is little reason to expect it.  People with General Anxiety Disorder have co-occurring physical symptoms, such as fatigue, trembling, muscle tension, headache, or nausea.


People with phobias have extreme, disabling and irrational fear of something that really poses little or no actual danger; the fear leads to avoidance of objects or situations and can cause people to limit their lives.

Panic Disorder

People with panic disorder have experienced a panic attack.  The disorder occurs when the person fears having another panic attack.  Panic disorder is, therefore, characterized by panic attacks, which are sudden feelings of terror that strike repeatedly and without warning. Physical symptoms include:  chest pain, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, dizziness, abdominal discomfort, feelings of unreality, and fear of dying.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

People with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder have anxious impulses to repeat words or phrases or engage in repetitive, ritualistic behavior, such as constant hand washing.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

People with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder have persistent symptoms that occur after experiencing a traumatic event such as war, rape, child abuse, natural disasters, or being taken hostage. Nightmares, flashbacks, numbing of emotions, depression, and feeling angry, irritable, and distracted and being easily startled are common symptoms of PTSD.

Local Support Group offered:


Support group for adults with anxiety disorders such as: panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, posttraumatic stress and generalized anxiety.  Meetings are held the second and fourth Thursdays at 7:00pm at The Mental Health Association, 1509 S. Hawthorne Road, Winston-Salem.

For more information about anxiety disorders, click on the following link:

Anxiety Disorders Association of America:


Most of us have an immediate and intuitive understanding of the notion of mood.  We readily know what it means to be happy or sad.  Mood disorders, however, are outside the bounds of normal fluctuations from sadness to elation.  Mood disorders affect about 7% of Americans and rank among the top 10 causes of disability.  In the workplace, major/clinical depression is a leading cause of absenteeism and diminished productivity.  Depression-related visits to physicians account for a large portion of health care expenditures.

Mood disorders include:  clinical or major depression, dysthymia and bipolar disorder, formerly known as “manic-depression”.  Suicide is the most dreaded complication of major depressive disorders.  About 10 to 15% of patients formerly hospitalized with depression commit suicide.  Similar to anxiety disorders, mood disorders affect around 19-20 million American adults.   Children and adolescents are also susceptible to mood disorders as well.

Specific mood disorders include:

Clinical Depression

Depression causes people to lose pleasure from daily life, can complicate other medical conditions, and can even be serious enough to lead to suicide.   Depression can occur to anyone, at any age, and to people of any race or ethnic group.  Depression is never a “normal” part of life, no matter what your age, gender or health situation.   Unfortunately, though treatment for depression is almost always successful, fewer than half of those suffering from this illness seek treatment.  Too many people resist treatment because they believe depression is not serious, that they can treat it themselves or that it is a personal weakness rather than a serious medical illness.

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Bipolar Disorder

An illness involving one or more episodes of serious mania and depression.  The illness causes a person’s mood to swing from excessively “high” and/or irritable to sad and hopeless, with periods of a normal mood in between.  Other symptoms of bipolar disorder include:  sleep and eating disturbances and changes in activity and energy levels.  A person with bipolar disorder is also at risk of dying by suicide.

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Symptoms of Manic Behavior

NOTE:  This listing is to be used as an educational and informational tool – NOT as a diagnostic instrument.

  • Abnormally elevated mood, hyperactivity
  • Severe insomnia, no apparent need for sleep
  • Grandiose notions, may be accompanied by delusions of grandeur
  • Irritability
  • Increased talking, speaking
  • Racing thoughts, accelerated thinking
  • Increased activity, including sexual energy
  • Markedly increased energy
  • Poor judgment that leads to risk-taking behavior
  • Inappropriate social behavior

Dysthymic Disorder

A chronic, low grade depression that seems part of the person’s personality. A person with dysthymia has depressed mood and symptoms most of the time for more than two years and has at least two of the following symptoms.


  • Feels hopeless
  • Low self-esteem
  • Fatigue or low energy
  • Sleep disturbance
  • Appetite disturbance
  • Poor concentration
  • Indecisive

Local Support Group offered:


Support group for adults with mood disorders such as clinical depression, bi-polar disorder or any other mood disorder.  Meetings are held Friday mornings at 10:30 am and on the first and third Tuesday evenings at 7:00 pm at the Mental Health Association, 1509 S. Hawthorne Road, Winston-Salem.

For more information about Mood Disorders, click on the following link:

Mental Health America:



Schizophrenia is a serious brain disorder and is characterized by a profound disruption in cognition and emotion, affecting the most fundamental human attributes such as:  language, thought, perception, affect and sense of self.  The array of symptoms include psychotic manifestations, such as hearing internal voices or experiencing other sensations not connected to an obvious source (hallucinations) and assigning unusual significance or meaning to normal events or holding fixed personal beliefs (delusions).   Other symptoms include withdrawal, incoherent speech and impaired reasoning.

Schizophrenia/Psychotic disorders include:

Causes of Schizophrenia; the “Positive” Symptoms of Schizophrenia

Schizophrenia is believed to be caused by chemical imbalances in the brain that cause a variety of “positive” symptoms including hallucinations, delusions, withdrawal, and incoherent speech and impaired reasoning.


Delusions are false beliefs that are not based in reality.  Delusions can cause a person to view the world from a unique or peculiar perspective. The individual will often focus on persecution (believes he or she is God, very wealthy, a famous person, a member of the Royal Family or possesses a special talent or beauty).


It is not unusual for some people with mental illnesses such as schizophrenia to hear voices, or to see, smell, taste, or feels imaginary things.  The person experiences events that have no objective source, but they are nonetheless real to him or her.

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Negative Symptoms” of Schizophrenia

While delusions, hallucinations and disordered thinking are the “positive symptoms” associated with schizophrenia, the “negative symptoms” associated with schizophrenia include:

  • Can not show feelings (flat affect)
  • Can not start or maintain conversations
  • Minimal flow of thought
  • Lack of motivation
  • Unable to feel pleasure
  • Minimal self-care and grooming

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Schizoaffective Disorder

  • A variant of schizophrenia
  • Persons with schizoaffective disorder show more mood symptoms
  • A person with schizoaffective disorder usually has less long term impairment IF they receive treatment.

Local Support Group offered:


Support group for adults with schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder and other psychotic disorders.  Meetings are held the second and fourth Thursdays at 2:30pm at The Mental Health Association, 1509 S. Hawthorne Road, Winston-Salem.

For more information about schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder or other psychotic disorders,  click on the following link below:

National Institute of Mental Health:


Dementia is characterized by a disturbance of consciousness and a change in cognition, (including memory loss and a decline of intellectual and physical functioning) which develops over a short period.

These disorders include Alzheimer’s, vascular dementia, dementia due to medical conditions, (e.g., HIV, Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease, head trauma), substance-induced dementia (drug abuse, alcohol abuse, inhalants, toxin exposure [mercury, lead, carbon dioxide, etc.] and dementia due to a combination of multiple factors.

For more information, click on the following link below.

Alzheimer’s disease and Dementia Association:



Eating disorders are serious, sometimes life-threatening, conditions that tend to be chronic.  Each year, more than five million Americans have an eating disorder. Onset usually occurs in adolescence and tends to predominantly affect females.

Having an eating disorder is marked by extremes.  It is present when a person experiences severe disturbances in eating behavior such as extreme reduction of food intake or extreme overeating or feelings of extreme distress or concern about body weight or shape.

A person with an eating disorder may have started out just eating smaller or larger amounts of food than usual, however, at some point in time, the urge to eat less or more spirals out of control.

Specific eating disorders include:

Anorexia Nervosa


Characteristics/Symptoms of a person with Anorexia Nervosa:

  • Emaciation
  • A restless pursuit of thinness
  • Unwillingness to maintain a normal or healthy body weight
  • Distortion of body image
  • Intense fear of gaining weight
  • Eating, food and weight control become obsessions
  • Other symptoms include:  thinning of the bones, brittle hair and nails, dry/yellowish skin, growth of fine hair over body, mild anemia/muscle weakness, severe constipation, low blood pressure/slowed breathing and pulse, drop in internal body temperature causing a person to feel cold all the time, lethargy.

One in ten cases of anorexia nervosa leads to death from starvation, cardiac arrest, other medical complications or suicide.

Bulimia Nervosa

(binge eating followed by purging, fasting or excessive exercise)

Characteristics/Symptoms of a person with Bulimia Nervosa:

  • Recurrent and frequent episodes of eating unusually large amounts of food
  • Feeling a lack of control over the eating
  • Behavior to “compensate” for the binge eating such as purging, fasting and/or excessive exercise.

Other symptoms include:  chronically inflamed and sore throat, swollen glands in the neck and below the jaw, worn tooth enamel; decaying teeth due to exposure to stomach acids, intestinal distress and irritation from laxative abuse, kidney problems from diuretic abuse, severe dehydration from purging of fluids.

Binge Eating Disorder

(involves episodic, uncontrolled consumption of food, without the compensatory activities such as vomiting or laxative abuse to avert weight gain that is associated with bulimia.)

Characteristics of a person with binge-eating disorder:

  • Recurrent binge eating episodes during which a person feels a loss of control over his or her eating
  • Binge eating is NOT followed by purging, excessive exercise or fasting
  • Often overweight or obese
  • Experiences guilt, shame and/or distress about the binge eating, which can lead to more binge eating.

Other symptoms include:  co-occurring psychological illnesses such as anxiety, depression and personality disorders; cardiovascular disease, hypertension.

How are boys and men with eating disorders affected?

While women and girls are much more likely to develop an eating disorder, men and boys account for an estimated 5 to 15 percent of patients with anorexia or bulimia and an estimated 35 percent of those with binge-eating disorder.  In addition, eating disorders are also common among:  older adult women, African-Americans, victims of sexual abuse and male & female athletes who are involved in sports with weight classes.

One in four preadolescent cases of anorexia occurs in boys and binge eating disorder affects females and males equally.  Like females who have eating disorders, males with the illness have a warped sense of body image and often have muscle dysmorphia – a type of disorder that is characterized by an extreme concern with becoming more muscular.  Some boys with the disorder want to lose weight, while others want to gain weight or “bulk up”  Boys who think they are too small are at a greater risk for using steroids or other dangerous drugs to increase muscle mass.

Boys with eating disorders exhibit the same types of emotional, physical and behavioral signs and symptoms as girls.  However, boys are less likely to be diagnosed with what is often considered a stereotypically “female” disorder.

Persons with eating disorders may also have other mental illnesses such as:  depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), personality or substance abuse disorder.

Treatment is most successful when diagnosed early and when it consists of a combination of:

  • Psychotherapy (“talk” therapy)
  • Nutritional Counseling – restoring the person to a healthy weight
  • Medication (to relieve symptoms of depression, anxiety, etc.)
  • Cognitive/Behavioral Therapy (to learn new patterns of behavior with food and relationships)

For more information about eating disorders, click on the following link below:

National Eating Disorders Association: