What is a Mental Health Disorder?

The National Institute of Health (NIH) defines a mental disorder as “a mental, behavioral, or emotional disorder.” It goes on to state, “Mental health issues can vary in impact, ranging from no impairment to mild, moderate, and even severe impairment.”

NIH reports that roughly one in five adults in the U.S. have some sort of mental health condition. This amounts to more than 50 million people. With the ongoing COVID-19 epidemic, that figure has likely only increased since then.

The following factors can have damaging effects on a person’s mental health:

  • Childhood abuse, trauma, or neglect
  • Social isolation or loneliness
  • Experiencing discrimination, stigma, or racism
  • Poverty or debt, including houselessness
  • Loss of a loved one
  • Severe or long-term stress
  • Being diagnosed with a long-term physical health condition
  • Unemployment
  • Drug and alcohol misuse
  • Domestic violence, bullying, or other abuse
  • Trauma, including physical violence, rape, military combat, or experiencing a natural disaster

Mental Health Risk Factors

Most mental health disorders are not “triggered” by any one occurrence or development. A lot of risk factors come into play regarding mental health including:

  • Genetics
  • Brain chemistry
  • Hygiene and habits
  • Ongoing medical conditions (diabetes, arthritis)
  • Stressful events or environment

Much about the link between stress and mental health is complex. However, what is certain is that stress can only worsen a mental health disorder. Despite this, knowing when to seek professional help for mental health reduces that stress.

Mental health disorders are extremely difficult to manage alone. Too often, teens, young adults, and full-grown adults find it difficult to communicate their thoughts and feelings. They bottle them up, which makes things worse. However, a strong support network of empathetic people can offer the support needed.

young man with a mental health disorder

Common Mental Health Disorders

There are numerous diagnosable and treatable mental health disorders, all with their own unique causes, symptoms, and treatment approaches. A few of the more common mental health disorders include:

  • Depression. Depression is characterized by low mood, a loss of interest and pleasure, and reductions in energy levels. While there exist different kinds of depression, with varying severity of symptoms, some types of depression can lead to thoughts of suicide.
  • Anxiety. Anxiety disorders are a group of mental health disorders that includes generalized anxiety disorder, social phobia, specific phobias (such as acrophobia and claustrophobia), panic disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
  • Bipolar. Bipolar disorder is a type of mood disorder wherein a person experiences episodes of intense elation followed by depression and vice versa. Previously referred to as manic depression, bipolar can be triggered by environmental stressors and genetic predisposition.
  • Dissociation. Dissociation and dissociative disorders are mental processes wherein a person essentially “leaves” their thoughts, feelings, memories, and even sense of identity. Dissociative amnesia, dissociative fugue, depersonalization disorder, and dissociative identity disorder are all types of dissociative disorders.
  • Substance use disorder (SUD). Substance use disorders are mental disorders that affect a person’s brain and behavior. It leads to an inability to control their use of substances like alcohol, medications, or illegal drugs. Symptoms can range from moderate to severe.
  • Eating disorders. Eating disorders include anorexia, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, and avoidant restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID). Such disorders can have dire physical and psychological consequences.

When someone has a mental health disorder, it can affect their every thought and behavior. However, a person can experience poor mental health and still not be diagnosed with any sort of disorder. On the other hand, someone living with a mental health disorder can exhibit no symptoms whatsoever.

woman in therapy for a mental health disorder

Warning Signs of a Mental Health Disorder

The warning signs and symptoms of a mental health disorder are unique to the person living with the disorder. Understanding warning signs can clarify how to know when to seek help for mental health, especially when symptoms are subtle or in their beginning stages.

Below are some of the most common signs including, but not limited to:

Mood Changes

  • Feeling sad or “down” for prolonged periods, without a specific reason
  • Noticeable mood swings, from euphoria to deep sadness
  • Excessive worrying about the possibility of a stressful event, no matter how remote
  • Apathy
  • Outbursts of rage or hostility
  • Trouble relating to others’ thoughts, feelings, and situations

Behavioral Changes

  • Suicidal thoughts or behaviors
  • Self-injury
  • Experiencing large gaps in memory
  • Withdrawal from friends and family, avoiding social activities that were once enjoyed
  • Delusions, or believing in things that are not real
  • Hallucinations, or sensory experiences that feel real but are not

Physical Changes

  • Episodes of excessive sweating, nausea, increased heart rate, or trouble breathing
  • Changes in eating or sleeping patterns (either eating or sleeping too much or too little)
  • Noticeable changes in sex drive or sexual activity, including risky sexual behavior
  • Noticeable changes in eating behavior
woman sits alone and upset showing signs of depression

Why People Avoid Seeking Treatment

According to Mental Health Has Bigger Challenges Than Stigma, a report from Sapien Labs’ Mental Health Million Project, less than half of individuals in the U.S. with a clinical-level mental health problem do not seek professional help.

A large part of this alarming statistic stems from people’s lack of access to credible mental health services. However, even with recent transformative developments in telehealth, people still tend to avoid seeking professional help for their mental health disorders.

A few of the reasons why include:

  • Stigma. The negative stigma associated with being seen as mentally weak, vulnerable, or “crazy” continues to hinder people from seeking professional help. In fact, seeking help is courageous, and shouldn’t be judged.
  • Doubt. People too often choose to “suffer in silence,” thinking no one could possibly understand what they’re going through.
  • Pride. Many people—particularly older adults—consider their mental health problems to be private matters, best managed alone, away from outsiders’ snooping. Surrendering to a professional treatment process borders on the unthinkable.
  • Fear. Fear of change, fear of the unknown, fear that treatment will alter their personality, fear they might outgrow friends and family—fear is humanity’s most powerful motivator for avoidance. Unfortunately, all mental health disorders are progressive and only worsen when left untreated.
couple argue as one avoids mental health treatment

Finding Treatment

It can be hard to know how to start the process of finding effective mental health treatment. A primary care provider is an excellent first step, as they can usually pass on the name of a psychologist or psychiatrist. Additionally, a preferred clergyperson can also help. For those who have private insurance, these organizations can provide online directories of in-network mental health providers.

Moreover, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration can also help people locate affordable mental health providers and facilities in their local area. Meanwhile, eligible veterans can receive mental health treatment either through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals or with a private facility.