Mental Illness

What is It

Mental illnesses are a group of conditions that have been misunderstood for centuries, not only among laymen but also in the scientific community. Even today, several myths and misconceptions surround mental health problems which have resulted in stigma in our society. This prevents those suffering from getting the help that they need.

Mental health problems are mostly a result of neurochemical changes in the brain which cause an imbalance in the sufferer’s emotions, leading to a distortion in their thoughts and, subsequently, making them behave inappropriately. However, this doesn’t mean that any person who behaves inappropriately has mental health problems. There are criteria that mental health professionals use to diagnose a patient. Labelling people who we think may act strangely as mentally ill is not only incorrect, but also serves to increase the stigma and worsens the suffering of those affected.

How it Happens

If we don’t look after our emotional health properly and don’t practice emotional hygiene by dealing with emotional traumas effectively, the traumas build up in our subconscious and eventually start impinging upon our conscious. This may result in an individual entering into a state of being, called unhappiness. We all face periods of unhappiness due to some reason or the other. However, prolonged periods of unhappiness, facilitated by the neuroplasticity, eventually cause neurochemical changes in the brain, resulting in the development of mental illnesses.

Research has suggested that some mental health problems also have a genetic basis meaning that they are passed down in families. However, most sufferers often have no history of mental health problems in their families, so they are not completely genetic. Even if the genetic predisposition is there, the experiential changes produced by emotional traumas are instrumental in triggering these conditions and since all of us experience adverse life events, all of us have the potential to develop a mental illness. Whether you experience a mental illness or not can depend on how you learn to cope and manage with traumas or adverse life events.

Due to a lack of awareness and distorted knowledge about mental health problems, a lot of myths and misconceptions have sprung up. Some of them which are common in our society are the following:

How it Affects Us

Mental illnesses are different from physical illnesses in that they have an effect on our thoughts, feelings and behaviour. It is this feature of the illness that makes it difficult to understand and come to terms with. However, the changes in the brain chemistry can also manifest as physical symptoms. This can be seen in the physical weakness accompanying depression or the racing heart-beat accompanying anxiety.If our leg gets fractured, we feel pain at the site of the injury and know that we need to wear a cast and rest for it to heal. If we get diagnosed with hypertension, we experience symptoms like dizziness, headaches and weakness and know that we need to take medications to keep our blood pressure under control. In both of the aforementioned conditions, and in other physical illnesses, our thoughts and emotions remain under our control.However, if we have a mental illness, things are more complicated. Neurochemical changes in the brain may result in our emotions going out of our control, in a distortion of our thoughts and, subsequently, changes in our behaviour. For example, if Erum has a mental illness, she may feel excessively angry. Since Erum doesn’t know that neurochemical changes have occurred in her brain, she may associate her anger with some real world event such as her daughter coming home a bit later than usual. Because of her distorted thought patterns, she may begin to feel angry at her daughter and eventually scream and shout inappropriately at her.This is why it is often said that mental illness is extremely distressing not only for the sufferer, but also for the people around them.

The Common Sign

In the next section, we will discuss various types of mental health problems and their symptoms. Since mental illness is experienced by an individual, it is difficult for another person to see the symptoms occurring in a sufferer as opposed to breaking a leg in which the injury is clearly visible. Since we can’t experience the sufferer’s symptoms, how can we tell whether a person has mental health problems?We can do this by knowing the signs of mental illness. The primary sign, common to all mental health problems, is a change in functionality. Functionality, as discussed in the mental health section, is the ability of an individual to function appropriately and be a productive member of society.Loss of functionality, the hallmark of mental illness, results when one or more of these aspects are adversely affected due to the symptoms of the illness:

  • Trouble studying or working, resulting in the sufferer dropping out of an educational institution or being unable to continue her or his job.
  • Breakdown of relationships due to certain symptoms which result in the person becoming extremely asocial, excessively irritable, aggressive or overly paranoid.
  • Lack of self-care and adoption of harmful behaviours such as addictive behaviours or risk taking.

If you notice any of these signs in someone around you, be cautious that this person may be suffering and may need professional help. For more information about the signs of specific mental health problems please refer to our ‘Care’ section to understand how you can help those affected.