Understanding Mental Illness

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Mental illness is a broad term used to describe any one of a group of medical illnesses/psychiatric disorders that interfere with a person’s ability to function and manage day-to-day activities. Approximately 1 in 5 Americans experience mental illness in a given year. Although any mental illness is serious, 70 – 90% of people with mental illness experience a significant reduction of symptoms with treatment. Many mental illnesses respond to treatment consisting of a combination of pharmacological and psychosocial treatment, enabling people to live healthy, productive lives.

Serious and persistent mental illness (SPMI) refers to a subgroup of people with mental illness whose symptoms substantially interfere with a person’s ability to manage their life. 1 in 17 Americans have SPMI.

Common Mental Illnesses


Schizophrenia refers to a brain disorder in which thoughts and/or perceptions are distorted. Approximately 1% of the US population suffers from schizophrenia. People with this disorder may experience one or a combination of symptoms which may include hallucinations (hearing or seeing things that are not real) and delusions (beliefs, thoughts, or perceptions that are not real). Such symptoms are often very frightening for people and can lead to behaviors that are difficult for others to understand, including withdrawal from people and activities in the world.

Schizophrenia is most often a chronic condition requiring lifelong treatment and support. Symptoms of schizophrenia can often be successfully managed with medications. When proper medications are coupled with appropriate social supports, people who suffer from schizophrenia can lead successful, rewarding lives.

Major Depressive Disorder

Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) is a brain disorder experienced by approximately 25% of the US population annually. Twice as many women than men are diagnosed with MDD. People with MDD experience symptoms that significantly interfere with their ability to function in areas such as work, family, and recreation. Symptoms of MDD can include changes in sleep patterns and appetite, irritability, decreased energy, feelings of hopelessness and/or helplessness, and thoughts of suicide.

Like other mental illnesses, MDD is serious and often life-long, requiring on-going treatment. Even in its most severe form, MDD is nearly always treatable through a combination of medication and social supports.

Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar Disorder is a serious brain disorder involving dramatic and severe shifts in mood and energy that is diagnosed in approximately 1% of the US population in a given year. People with this disorder often experience extreme highs (mania) that can involve heightened energy, extreme irritability, racing thoughts and poor judgment. Bipolar disorder also involves periods of Major Depressive Disorder (see above).

Bipolar disorder is a long-term, recurrent illness that responds best to medications to stabilize a person’s mood, coupled with social supports.

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