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Clinical Disorders

What is a clinical disorder?

Clinical disorders are medical conditions that disrupt a person’s thinking, feeling, and general daily functioning. These types of illnesses can affect anyone, of any age, race, religion or income. These disorders are treatable and do not define a person as being weak or not having any willpower. Once diagnosed, sufferers can find relief by participating in a treatment plan.  The earlier treatment is started, the better the results.

Warning Signs of Mental Illness

From the American Psychiatric Organization

Major mental illnesses such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder rarely appear “out of the blue.” Most often family, friends, teachers or individuals themselves begin to recognize small changes or a feeling that “something is not quite right” about their thinking, feelings or behavior before one of these illnesses appears in its full-blown form.

One half of all mental illness begins by age 14 and 75% begins by age 24.
Learning about developing symptoms, or early warning signs, and taking action can help. Early intervention can help reduce the severity of an illness. It may even be possible to delay or prevent a major mental illness altogether.

Clinical Disorders – Signs and Symptoms

If several of the following is occurring, it may useful to follow up with a mental health professional.

  • Withdrawal — Recent social withdrawal and loss of interest in others
    Drop in functioning — An unusual drop in functioning, at school, work or social activities, such as quitting sports, failing in school or difficulty performing familiar tasks
  • Problems thinking — Problems with concentration, memory or logical thought and speech that are hard to explain
  • Increased sensitivity — Heightened sensitivity to sights, sounds, smells or touch; avoidance of over-stimulating situations
  • Apathy — Loss of initiative or desire to participate in any activity
  • Feeling disconnected — A vague feeling of being disconnected from oneself or one’s surroundings; a sense of unreality
  • Illogical thinking — Unusual or exaggerated beliefs about personal powers to understand meanings or influence events; illogical or “magical” thinking typical of childhood in an adult
  • Nervousness — Fear or suspiciousness of others or a strong nervous feeling
  • Unusual behavior – Odd, uncharacteristic, peculiar behavior
  • Sleep or appetite changes — Dramatic sleep and appetite changes or decline in personal care
  • Mood changes — Rapid or dramatic shifts in feelings

Don’t diagnose yourself – see a professional 

One or two of these symptoms alone can’t predict a mental illness. But if a person is experiencing several at one time and the symptoms are causing serious problems in the ability to study, work or relate to others, he/she should be seen by a mental health professional. People with suicidal thoughts or intent, or thoughts of harming others, need immediate attention.

Taking Action, Getting Help

More than a decade of research around the world has shown that early intervention can often minimize or delay symptoms, prevent hospitalization and improve prognosis. Even if a person does not yet show clear signs of a diagnosable mental illness, these “red flag” early warning symptoms can be frightening and disruptive.

Encourage the person to:

  • Have an evaluation by a mental health or other healthcare professional.
  • Learn about mental illness, including signs and symptoms.
  • Receive supportive counseling about daily life and strategies for stress management.
  • Be monitored closely for conditions requiring more intensive care.

Each individual’s situation must be assessed carefully and treatment should be individualized. Comprehensive treatment to prevent early symptoms from progressing into serious illness can include ongoing individual and family counseling, vocational and educational support, participation in a multi-family problem-solving group, and medication when appropriate.

Clinical Disorder 800 Recovery HubFamily members are valued partners and should be involved whenever possible. Learning about mental illness and what is happening in the brain can help individuals and families understand the significance of symptoms, how an illness might develop and what can be done to help.

Just as with other medical illnesses, early intervention can make a crucial difference in preventing what could become a serious illness.

What is Mental Illness

Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of. It is a medical problem, just like heart disease or diabetes.

Mental illnesses are health conditions involving changes in thinking, emotion or behavior (or a combination of these). Mental illnesses are associated with distress and/or problems functioning in social, work or family activities.

Mental illness is common. In a given year:

  • nearly one in five (19 percent) U.S. adults experience some form of mental illness
  • one in 24 (4.1 percent) has a serious mental illness
  • one in 12 (8.5 percent) has a substance use disorder*

Mental illness is treatable. The vast majority of individuals with mental illness continue to function in their daily lives.

Mental Health…

involves effective functioning in daily activities resulting in

Productive activities (work, school, caregiving)
Healthy relationships
Ability to adapt to change and cope with adversity

Mental Illness…

refers collectively to all diagnosable mental disorders — health conditions involving

Significant changes in thinking, emotion and/or behavior
Distress and/or problems functioning in social, work or family activities
Mental health is the foundation for thinking, communication, learning, resilience, and self-esteem. Mental health is also key to relationships, personal and emotional well-being and contributing to community or society.

Many people who have a mental illness do not want to talk about it. But mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of! It is a medical condition, just like heart disease or diabetes. And mental health conditions are treatable. We are continually expanding our understanding of how the human brain works, and treatments are available to help people successfully manage mental health conditions.

Mental illness does not discriminate; it can affect anyone regardless of your age, gender, income, social status, race/ethnicity, religion/spirituality, sexual orientation, background or other aspects of cultural identity. While mental illness can occur at any age, three-fourths of all mental illness begins by age 24.

Mental illnesses take many forms. Some are fairly mild and only interfere in limited ways with daily life, such as certain phobias (abnormal fears). Other mental health conditions are so severe that a person may need care in a hospital.

Diagnosis

Mental health conditions are treatable and improvement is possible. Many people with mental health conditions return to full functioning.

It is not always clear when a problem with mood or thinking has become serious enough to be a mental health concern. Sometimes, for example, a depressed mood is normal, such as when a person experiences the loss of a loved one. But if that depressed mood continues to cause distress or gets in the way of normal functioning, the person may benefit from professional care.

Some mental illnesses can be related to or mimic a medical condition. Therefore a mental health diagnosis typically involves a full evaluation including a physical exam. This may include blood work and/or neurological tests.

People of diverse cultures and backgrounds may express mental health conditions differently. For example, some are more likely to come to a healthcare professional with complaints of physical symptoms that are caused by a mental health condition. Some cultures view and describe mental health conditions in different ways from most doctors in the United States.

Treatment and Self-help

The diagnosis of a mental disorder is not the same as a need for treatment. Need for treatment takes into consideration how severe the symptoms are, how much symptoms cause distress and affect daily living, the risks and benefits of available treatments and other factors (for example, psychiatric symptoms complicating other illness).

Mental health treatment is based upon an individualized plan developed collaboratively with a mental health clinician and an individual (and family members if the individual desires). It may include psychotherapy (talk therapy), medication or other treatments. Often a combination of therapy and medication is most effective. Complementary and alternative therapies are also increasingly being used.

Self-help and support can be very important to an individual’s coping, recovery, and wellbeing. A comprehensive treatment plan may also include individual actions (for example, lifestyle changes, support groups or exercise) that enhance recovery and well-being.

Primary care clinicians, psychiatrists, and other mental health clinicians help individuals and families understand mental illnesses and what they can do to control or cope with symptoms in order to improve health, wellness and function.

Sources

National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration (SAMSHA). Serious mental illness is a mental, behavioral or emotional disorder (excluding developmental and substance use disorders) resulting in a serious functional impairment, which substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities. Examples of serious mental illness include major depressive disorder, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder.

Physician Review By:

Ranna Parekh, M.D., M.P.H.
November 2015