Mental Illness Types

What are different types?

If you search the internet or psychiatry manuals for a list of disorders constituting mental illnesses, you will find dozens of diagnoses. This can be very confusing. Knowing about the intricacies of such diagnoses, as most self-help resources try to do, may have little therapeutic value for sufferers. Each sufferer’s experience is unique and shouldn’t be boxed up in a narrow label of a mental illness. In order to understand mental illnesses generally, we focus on common types of mental health problems that can be found in some form or the other across different mental illnesses:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Mania
  • Psychosis
  • Addiction


Depression is a term that is used very commonly to describe life experiences that cause us to feel ‘a bit blue’. If we fail our exam, lose our cell phone or have a fight with our parents, we may say that we feel ‘depressed’. However, this depression can more appropriately be described as sadness. Sadness is a normal part of life and is a manifestation of emotional pain. In fact, sadness is even beneficial because it can help us on our journey of self-development.

Clinical depression shouldn’t be confused with normal sadness, since it is an illness caused by neurochemical changes in the brain. If someone has clinical depression, it shouldn’t be compared with periods of sadness that people go through everyday. Depression is often much more intense and debilitating than the sadness we may have experienced and can be experienced for a prolonged period of time. The symptoms of clinical depression include:

  • Intense periods of grief accompanied by frequent crying spells
  • Loss of interest in activities that previously seemed very engaging
  • Extreme physical weakness or lethargy, resulting in an ability to get out of bed
  • Feelings of hopelessness for the future, causing severe demotivation
  • Changes in appetite; it can either significantly increase or decrease
  • Changes in sleep habits; it can either significantly increase or decrease
  • Thoughts of suicide if the depression becomes too extreme and the sufferer doesn’t get the appropriate help

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Clinical depression occurs in a number of mental illnesses, be it dysthymia, major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. It is one of the most common mental health problems.


Many of us have heard of and used the term anxiety in our lives. Whenever we feel stressed about the future, it is normal to feel anxious. However, this anxiety should more appropriately be called worry. Worry is an unpleasant emotion but, in moderate amounts, can also be beneficial because it gives us the incentive to work harder. For example, if Ahmed has an exam coming up and he is worried about it, he will put more effort into preparing for it as compared to if he would have not been worried about it.

However, clinical anxiety, like clinical depression, is caused by neurochemical changes in the brain and can be extremely debilitating and affects one’s daily life. If someone says that they suffer from clinical anxiety, we shouldn’t confuse it with the worry that we may experience since anxiety is a disease that requires professional help and can occur for a prolonged period of time. The symptoms of clinical anxiety include:

  • Heart palpitations due to the immense stress
  • Feelings of extreme panic and fear of the future
  • Difficulty breathing when the sufferer has a panic attack
  • Feeling of choking and dry mouth
  • Uneasiness, trembling and inability to sit still
  • A feeling of impending doom as if the world is about to end and all is lost

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Anxiety disorders come in various shades and colours, but they all consist of the aforementioned symptoms. Some brief examples are:

  • Generalized anxiety disorder: This is excessive, unrealistic worry and tension, even if there’s little or nothing to provoke the anxiety.
  • Panic disorder: People with this condition have feelings of terror that strike suddenly and repeatedly with no warning.
  • Phobias: Fear of particular objects and situations that evoke anxiety like fear of heights, fear of spiders, fear of large social gatherings etc.
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder: A condition brought about after exposure to shocking, scary, or dangerous events, causing a sufferer to feel great terror and anxiety whenever they are reminded of the event.
  • Obsessive compulsive disorder: A disorder in which the sufferer has extreme anxiety due to obsessive thoughts and engages in compulsive behaviours to deal with the anxiety.


Mania is a condition that very few of us directly experience, which is why it is difficult to understand. Mania is often misunderstood as being a period of high energy and good mood. Many of us casually use to the word ‘mania’ to describe days in which we are more hyper or productive than usual. This isn’t very accurate since mania is much more complex and, potentially, devastating.

Mania occurs due to a neurochemical imbalance in the brain and can be described as an overabundance of energy that manifests itself in accordance with the personality of the sufferer. The following symptoms can be found in mania:

  • Hyperactivity due to high energy, with the sufferer taking up different ideas and tasks.
  • Inflated self-esteem or grandiosity, with the sufferer feeling that they are highly gifted or possess special powers.
  • Intense happiness or irritability depending on the mood of the sufferer.
  • Recklessness and poor judgement, resulting in decisions that may be harmful such as speeding or spending too much.
  • Disinhibition and impulsiveness causing the sufferer to engage in risky behaviours such as sexual promiscuity, excessive drinking or gambling.

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Mania occurs in a mental illness known as bipolar disorder, which is a severely debilitating condition in which a sufferer oscillates between phases of depression and mania.

However, controlled mania, known as hypomanic episodes, can also lead to a blossoming of creative thoughts and pursuits. In fact, several artists throughout history are considered to have experienced phases of mania.


Psychosis is the most severe of all mental health problems and involves the sufferer undergoing such a high degree of thought distortions that it leads to a loss of touch with reality. It is the classic mental illness known in society, with sufferers becoming completely dysfunctional.

Psychosis occurs due to neurochemical changes in the brain. The following symptoms are present:

  • Hallucinations are sensory experiences without the presence of a stimulus. They involve the sufferer seeing, hearing, smelling or feeling something that isn’t there.
  • Delusions are fixed but firm beliefs in something that is not true. The sufferer who experiences delusions may believe that someone is trying to kill him, to have divine powers or to possess other beliefs that are far from reality.
  • Such intense paranoia that the sufferer feels everyone is out to harm them.
  • Social withdrawal due to the inability to communicate with people
  • Erratic behaviour which can involve the sufferer doing odd things such as wearing a pot as a hat, smiling or laughing uncontrollably, breaking eggs on their hands etc.
  • Symptoms of depression described earlier.

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Psychosis can occur as part of a mental illness called schizophrenia, can be drug induced or occur as a brief episode.


Addictions are conditions that involve the sufferer taking a substance (e.g., alcohol, cocaine, cigarettes) or engaging in an activity (e.g., gambling, sex, shopping) that can be pleasurable but the continued use/act of which becomes compulsive and interferes with ordinary life responsibilities such as work and personal life. Although the behaviours may be pleasurable and stress relieving in the short term, prolonged engagement in them may lead to severe long-term harm. Although addictions form a separate category of mental illness, they usually exist in conjunction with other mental health problems such as depression and anxiety.

Previously it was thought that the substance or activity itself led to the sufferer adopting addictive behaviours. However, contemporary research suggests that underlying mental health problems often play a crucial role in triggering addictive behaviours. This also means that the alleviation of the underlying problem can lead to the resolution of the addictive behaviours.

There is also a difference between substance use and substance abuse. Substance use entails using a substance for short-term stimulation that gives pleasure but does not result in impairment of the functionality of the individual in the long-term. However, substance abuse involves the overuse of substances to such an extent that it results in a sufferer having no control over their actions in a way that it begins to adversely affect their life.