Understanding mental illness
Dr Morton's – the medical helpline is a telephone and web-based business providing medical advice to customers.
Dr Morton's
the medical helpline©

Understanding for mental illness

Reduce anxiety or stress

Mental health problems can affect any one of us. Understanding from those around us is key to recovery.

  • understand the damage done by stigma about mental illness
  • recognise the difference between normal anxiety or unhappiness and stress-related mental illness
  • help friends by understanding their illness and thus reduce their isolation

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The most important thing you can do for someone suffering with mental illness is to understand it

Mental illness is bad enough, but the experience of sufferers is made so much worse by the stigma which still surrounds these conditions. “Just pull yourself together”, “cheer up and have some fun” or “I know how you feel, but when I’m down I find doing ‘x’ sorts it out” are some of the all too commonly heard comments which only serve to make those with mental illness more isolated, less likely to seek help and less likely to recover.

Conversely, understanding mental illness allows you to reach out effectively to the sufferer and helpfully to accompany them on their journey to recovery.

Mental illness falls into two main categories: psychotic illnesses in which the sufferer loses touch with reality and so called ‘neurotic’ illnesses, usually caused by stress. The label ‘neurosis’ is unfortunate, seeming to imply oddness or fragility, while in fact those suffering from stress-related illness are often the best and strongest among us.

Psychotic illnesses include schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. They can happen at any time irrespective of circumstances. Stress-related mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety states and OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) happen mostly to people who try too hard and take on too much at times of stress. So telling these people that they need to try harder, or that they are being weak, is both wrong and unhelpful.

Symptoms of psychotic mental illness (eg schizophrenia, bipolar disorder) may include

  • delusions (false fixed beliefs)
  • hallucinations (false perceptions, for example hearing voices when nobody is speaking)
  • thought disorder (disruption of normal thought making the sufferer difficult to understand)
  • disorders of possession of thought (feeling that your thoughts have been extracted or put into your head by an outside agency, or are heard by other people)
  • passivity phenomena (feeling that your mind or body are controlled externally)
  • physical illnesses can sometimes mimic mental illnesses. This is why doctors often do blood tests or other physical investigations for people suffering symptoms which are apparently psychological in nature

When you should contact a doctor

When the sufferer exhibits reckless or risky behaviours or expresses ideas of hopelessness or suicide. In any case, always encourage sufferers from symptoms of mental illness to consult their doctor.

Available treatments

There are a range of effective treatments for mental illnesses including anxiety, major depression, OCD, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Don’t believe those who tell you that medications for mental illness don’t work. They do, if used correctly for the right condition. Also, ignore those who say that psychotherapy is 'just chat'. In fact, various psychotherapies, particularly cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and Mindfulness, have a very strong evidence base. There is also good evidence for the benefits of aerobic exercise and for creating a calm and accepting environment. The evidence for dietary changes improving mental health is less strong.

Above all, psychiatrists have known for decades that calm, accepting support from friends and relatives is the most important factor in allowing recovery to occur.

Don’t give advice, demands or exhortations. Give understanding.

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