Mental Illness

Mental health disorders affect nearly a fifth of U.S. adults. Ranging from depression to schizophrenia, these disorders can interfere with the ability of a person to enjoy a productive life. But treatment options, including psychotherapy, medications and exercise, can help restore mental health.

woman in mental distress

What are Mental Health Disorders?

An estimated 18 percent of U.S. adults experience some type of mental illness each year. For more than 4 percent of adults, their mental illness is serious. The majority of the time – 75 percent – the onset of mental illness occurs by the age of 24. As much as 10 percent of young people go through a period of major depression.

According to the American Psychiatric Association, mental illnesses are health conditions involving changes in thinking, emotion or behavior, or a combination of these. Mental illness involves distress or problems functioning. Individuals can experience different types of symptoms. Symptoms may last varying lengths of time and they can have different levels of severity.

Mental illness is a health issue, like diabetes or cancer. It is nothing to be ashamed of, and it can be addressed through proper treatment.

People with mental illness deserve the same kind of love and support as those suffering through a physical illness. The vast majority of mentally ill people aren’t violent. Just 3 to 5 percent of violent acts are committed by people who are mentally ill. To the contrary, mentally ill people are more than 10 times more likely to be victims of violent crime.

male in mental distress

Types of Disorders

The most common mental health disorders are anxiety, mood disorders and schizophrenia disorders. Feelings of sadness and anxiety are nearly universal. They are signs of a disorder when they overwhelm. At this point, it’s difficult to cope with daily life or enjoy leisure time. A mental disorder can also cause trouble in relationships.

Anxiety Disorders

These disorders are marked by severe fear or dread associated with certain situations or objects. Patients have physical reactions to these objects and situations, including rapid heartbeat and sweating. They cannot control their responses. With anxiety disorders, these feelings do not go away and can get worse. They can interfere with things like job performance, school and relationships. These disorders include panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, phobias, obsessive-compulsive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Panic Disorder

Panic disorder is an anxiety disorder marked by panic attacks. Symptoms include fast heartbeat, chest pain, trouble breathing and dizziness. These attacks can happen without warning. Fear of these attacks can control a person’s life, even making it difficult to leave the home.


Phobias are irrational fears. For example, acrophobia is fear of heights and agoraphobia is fear of public places. Some people have social phobia or phobias involving tunnels, highway driving, water, animals or flying. Phobias can be treated with medication and therapy.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

This happens to some people who experience or witness a terrifying or traumatic event, such as a war, a bad accident or rape. PTSD is marked by flashbacks, feeling alone, sleep disturbances and angry outbursts. People with PTSD may have uncontrollable thoughts and intrusive memories about the event, PTSD is treated with medications and psychotherapy. The therapist may pursue various treatment techniques.

Depression and Other Mood Disorders

These disorders involve changes in mood or disturbances. These typically involve depression or elation, also known as mania. These disorders are highly treatable. They include: major depression, bipolar disorder, dysthymia and seasonal affective disorder.

Depression affects more than 20 million U.S. adults.


More than 20 million Americans have depression. Symptoms persist and interfere with normal life.

Symptoms include:
  • Sadness
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in things the patient used to enjoy
  • Weight loss or gain
  • Sleeping troubles
  • Loss of energy
  • Feelings of worthlessness
  • Thoughts of death or suicide

Causes can be genetic, environmental or biochemical. Treatment options include antidepressant medications and talk therapy.

Schizophrenia Disorder

It’s not clear whether schizophrenia is one disorder or a group of related illnesses. In any event, it’s a severe brain disorder that lasts through a person’s life. It’s highly complex. It involves fragmented thoughts and trouble processing information. Symptoms usually appear between the age of 15 and 25. Sufferers may hear voices or see things that aren’t there. They may believe others are reading or controlling their minds. They may experience social isolation, loss of motivation, hallucinations, delusions and other thought disorders. Treatment can help many patients lead productive lives.

stoic woman looking out a window

Warning Signs of Mental Health Disorders

Major mental illness rarely appears without warning. In the early stages before a disorder is recognized, friends and family members may start to notice small changes. They may feel something is not right about their loved one’s thinking, feelings or behavior.

According to the American Psychiatric Association, warning signs may include:
  • Social withdrawal or loss of interest in others
  • Drop in functioning at school, work or social activities
  • Thinking problems, which can involve concentration, memory or logical thought and speech
  • Increased sensitivity to sights, sounds, smells or touch
  • Apathy
  • Feeling disconnected from oneself or one’s surroundings
  • Illogical thinking, including exaggerated beliefs about personal abilities to understand meanings or influence events
  • Nervousness or fear or suspicion of others
  • Unusual or peculiar behavior
  • Sleep, appetite or mood changes

If a person displays several of these symptoms at once, and if the symptoms are interfering with the person’s life, he or she should visit a mental health professional.

woman consulting a doctor

Treating Mental Illness

Most mental illness can be treated in an effective way, especially with early diagnosis. Treatment varies with different patients. Treatment options include medication, therapy, avoidance of risk factors such as alcohol and learning skills to manage symptoms. With effective treatment, people with mental illness are just as productive in their jobs as their coworkers.

person meeting with a doctor

Psychiatric Prescription Drugs

There are a number of prescription drugs to treat mental illness. According to a 2017 research letter published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine, one in six Americans took a psychiatric medicine in 2013.


For anxiety disorder, the most common medications are called benzodiazepines. Drugs in this class include Clonazapam, Alprazolam and Lorazepam. They work by enhancing the effects of a tranquilizing neurotransmitter in the brain known as the GABA transmitter. They are considered problematic for long-term use. They are also subject to abuse and can be addictive. They are no longer the first option for treatment of anxiety. They are sometimes used in combination with selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs.)

Examples of benzodiazepines include:
alprazolam pills
Clonazepam Pills
Lorazepam pills

Beta Blockers

Beta blockers, including propranolol and atenolol, treat the physical symptoms of anxiety, such as rapid heartbeat, shaking and blushing in stressful situations. They work by blocking the effects of adrenaline.


Drugs used to treat depression are called antidepressants. These drugs are designed to balance some of the natural chemicals in the brain. Classes of antidepressants include selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, monoamine oxidase inhibitors, atypical antidepressants and tricyclic antidepressants. SSRIs are the most popular type. Examples of this class include Prozac, Paxil and Zoloft. They work by increasing the level of serotonin in the brain. Serotonin plays a role in mood.

Antipsychotics are used to treat conditions that involve psychosis. Psychosis involves a disconnection with reality. These conditions can include schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, PTDS and extreme depression. These drugs relieve symptoms but are not cures.

Older antipsychotics are referred to as “typical: antipsychotics or neuroleptics. They include Chlorpromazine, Haloperidol, Perphenazine and Fluphenazine. Newer antipsychotics are called “atypical” antipsychotics.

Examples include Risperidone, Olanzapine, Quetiapine and Ziprasidone. Both types of antipsychotic work to treat symptoms of schizophrenia and mania. Long-term use of older antipsychotics may cause a sometimes incurable nerve condition called tardive dyskinesia. This condition involves uncontrolled muscle movements, often around the mouth.

Mood Stabilizers

Drugs called mood stabilizers are used to treat bipolar disorders and mood swings. Lithium is a well-known mood stabilizer. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved it for treatment of mania and bipolar disorder. Mood stabilizers work by decreasing abnormal activity in the brain.

Safely Using Psychiatric Medications

Experts advise that doctors should prescribe these medications at the lowest effective dose. They should continue to monitor with their patients whether the drugs are still needed. Researchers have found many patients are given prescriptions over the long term for drugs that are recommended only for short-term use. Doctors and patients should work together on safely discontinuing drugs. Suddenly halting a psychiatric drug can be dangerous.

Prescription psychiatric drugs should be given at the lowest dose that will be effective.

Patients should also discuss possible interactions with other medications and supplements, as well as food. They should avoid mixing prescription drugs with alcohol and other substances.

Sometimes, a doctor may prescribe a medication for a use other than that approved by the FDA. This is known as off-label. Patients should inquire if their drugs are being given for approved uses. If not, the doctor and patient should be clear about the limits of the research supporting the prescription in the patient’s circumstances.

Also, when patients take generic medications, they should realize they are not exactly the same as the name-brand drug. The government requires only that generic medications contain the same active ingredients and are administered the same way. They may have different inactive ingredients, such as fillers and binders.

Side Effects from Drugs to Treat Mental Illness

Medications used to treat mental illness are linked to a number of unpleasant side effects. They can make it difficult for patients to maintain employment or stay in school.

Common side effects include:
  • Sleepiness
  • Nightmares
  • Dizziness
  • Dry mouth
  • Nervousness
  • Headaches
  • Shakiness
  • Confusion
  • Weight gain
  • Nausea
  • Sexual problems
male meditating

Other Treatments

In addition to prescription drugs, patients have the option of exploring other kinds of treatments. These include therapy, brain stimulation and complementary or alternative medicine. Examples of complementary treatments suggested by the National Alliance on Mental Illness include herbs and supplements and exercise, including yoga. Data on the effectiveness and safety of these approaches is lacking. But studies have suggested they have little chance of causing harm.


Also called talk therapy, psychotherapy is the best option for some patients. There are a number of psychotherapy techniques to help patients identify and modify thoughts, behavior and emotions with the help of a trained and licensed professional.

Brain Stimulation

This therapy involves using electricity to directly activate or inhibit brain activity. This can involve electrodes implanted in the brain or placed on the scalp. Magnetic fields can also be applied to the head. These therapies can be helpful for patients who have mental disorders that don’t respond to other kinds of treatment. The most commonly used of these is electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). ECT is used to treat severe depression that has not responded to other therapy. It also may be useful in cases of bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. ECT involves the use of electrodes placed on the head of a patient under anesthesia. They pass electric current through the brain. Research has found that ECT shows results more quickly than other forms of treatment.

Herbs and Supplements

Various herbs and supplements are used to treat different mental health conditions. For example, omega-3 fatty acids may help decrease the risk of developing chronic schizophrenia in young people who have had a psychotic episode. Folic acid or vitamin B9 may be useful in the treatment of depression and schizophrenia.


Exercise can relieve mental illness and reduce some side effects from psychiatric medications.

Mind and body treatment options include yoga, exercise, meditation and tai chi. These activities can improve mood and relieve anxiety and other symptoms of mental illness. Exercise can also reduce side effects of many conventional psychiatric medicines, such as weight gain and fatigue. Research has found evidence that these activities may reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety. Experts theorize that yoga, for example, may affect brain chemicals called neurotransmitters boosting levels of chemicals like serotonin that make people feel good. The exercise may also reduce inflammation and and have a positive effect on lipids in the body.

Please seek the advice of a medical professional before making health care decisions.

Elaine Silvestrini
Written By Elaine Silvestrini Writer

Elaine Silvestrini is an award-winning journalist with 30 years of experience covering state and federal court systems. She joined Drugwatch in 2017. Her coverage for Drugwatch has been cited in the CDC’s Public Health Law News and the USA Today Network. Some of her qualifications include:

  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention certificates in Health Literacy
  • Experience as an assistant investigator for the Federal Public Defender
  • Loyola Law School Journalist Law School Fellowship
Edited By
Kevin Connolly
Kevin Connolly Managing Editor

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