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You are not alone: facts about mental health and mental illness.

WHAT MENTAL HEALTH IS Mental health can mean many things to many people. Mentally healthy people have a positive self-image and can relate successfully to others. They are able to handle life's everyday challenges and changes as well as its traumas and transitions--loss of loved ones, marriage difficulties, school problems, the challenge of retirement.


There are a number of steps you can take to help maintain good mental health. When you reduce your own stress level, you put others at ease too. When you are cooperative and outgoing, you bring out the cooperative spirit in others. Here are some suggestions:

TAKE A REALISTIC APPROACH. If there's a job to do, get it done without ruffling the feathers of other people. Accept a challenge. Take command of the situation. Set goals. Keep them in perspective and see them as part of a larger purpose. Compromise with others who may not see eye-to-eye with you on every point. Remember, they also have rights. Enlist cooperation rather than arouse antagonism. Suggest a family or staff meeting to encourage cooperation and compromise.

LEARN TO RECOGNIZE AND EXPRESS YOUR FEELINGS. Whether your feelings are "good" or "bad," acknowledge them, and then express them as soon as possible in an appropriate way and place. Pent-up feelings can result in anger and depression. For example, if you feel put down or ignored at work and suppress your feelings, you may later vent your anger on someone else. Know why you feel angry and express your feelings as calmly as possible. Or talk matters over with a sensible, trustworthy person--a wise friend, a clergyman, a physician, a relative, or a professional counselor. This approach may help you to think more clearly.

DON'T BROOD. Often a simple change of pace or a refocusing of energies is a constructive way of "getting away from it all." Do something positive and useful about a problem instead of brooding.

PROCEED ONE STEP AT A TIME. To escape the feeling that you're trapped, put one foot ahead of the other and work toward a solution. This approach gives you pride in your ability to handle the situation. By diverting your tensions and anger to worthwhile and reachable goals, you will be amazed by how much control you can exert in managing your life.


Even when you try your best, you will still experience periods of frustration and unhappiness. Usually, with time, you will overcome your distress. But you should learn to recognize when your problems--or those of your loved ones--are too much to handle alone. You can help yourself, your family, and your friends by knowing when to ask for professional help. Some of the warning signs include:

UNDUE, PROLONGED ANXIETY. This is an anxiety out of proportion to any identifiable reason or cause. Of course, everyone experiences problems that make them tense and anxious. But a deep, continuing anxiety--a state of constant tension and fear that fastens itself to one cause after another--is a signal that help is needed. Unrelieved anxiety not only causes mental anguish but also can lead to physical problems.

PROLONGED OR SEVERE DEPRESSION. Depression strongly affects thinking, feelings, and behavior. Feelings of inadequacy, helplessness, hopelessness, undue pessimism, and loss of confidence are symptomatic of depression. Changes in behavior patterns are a key sign that depression may be getting out of hand and help should be sought.

Depressed individuals often withdraw from friends they normally enjoy, from loved ones, and from the usual occupation and hobbies that give pleasure. Their eating and sleeping habits change. Some suffer from loss of appetite and insomnia; others seek solace in over-eating and sleeping.

Other symptoms of depression include low energy, chronic fatigue, decreased effectiveness at school, work, or home, and loss of sexual interest. Depressed individuals are those most likely to think of suicide as a solution, although people with other mental and emotional disturbances may also be suicidal. During periods of crisis, people should be with others, avoiding isolation.

ABRUPT CHANGES IN MOOD AND BEHAVIOR. These changes do not include deliberate steps a person adopts for self-improvement. They refer to changes in mood and behavior that reflect serious alterations in an individual's normal habits or way of thinking. For example, the exceptionally frugal man or woman who suddenly begins gambling away large sums of money may be experiencing emotional problems.

TENSION-CAUSED PHYSICAL SYMPTOMS. Some bodily ailments and complaints have no physical cause--daily headache, a migraine induced by tension, nausea, pains, and other complaints. These symptoms, including pain, are very real. But only a physician is qualified to determine whether they are caused by distress rather than physical malfunctioning. Because medical tests may reveal an organic cause, any persistent physical ailment should be checked by a doctor.

If any warning signs are severe or long lasting, professional help may be needed. If the true cause of the problem can be identified, often the symptoms can be relieved.


It is far easier to describe the symptoms of mental illness than it is to define mental health.

Some of the major mental illnesses are:

SCHIZOPHRENIC DISORDERS. This large group of disorders of differing origin is more commonly referred to simply as schizophrenia. Generally, a disorder of this type becomes apparent before the age of 45; it lasts longer than 6 months; and it is characterized by a deterioration in the ability to work, relate to other people, and take care of oneself. The symptoms are many and varied, though no single one is always present or particular to schizophrenia. Delusions (false beliefs, despite obvious proof to the contrary), hallucinations (seeing or hearing things that are not present), thought disorders (manifested by disconnected speech or, in severe cases, incoherence), loss of self-identity, withdrawal from the outside world, and abnormal psychomotor activity (rocking, pacing, or immobility) are a few of the symptoms of schizophrenia.

Schizophrenia may be either long lasting (chronic) or of brief duration, in which case it is called a schizophreniform disorder.

The choice of treatment and the outlook for the future vary for different types of schizophrenia. Accurate diagnosis by a qualified psychiatrist is essential, because other psychotic conditions--those induced by such drugs as LSD or PCP ("angel dust"), mania, depression, or organic brain disturbances--may mimic the symptoms of schizophrenia.

AFFECTIVE DISORDERS. Severe depression, mania, or bipolar depression, characterized by cycles of depression and mania, are referred to as the affective disorders. These severe disorders of mood generally involve either depression or elation.

The prevalence of depression in the United States is estimated at 4 to 8 million individuals who suffer so severely that they are unable to maintain their normal activities. Unlike the normal "down" mood that we all experience at one time or another, major depression lingers on and becomes more pronounced than warranted by the events of daily living. Depressed people lose interest in their usual activities and pastimes. They get no pleasure from life. They feel hopeless and worthless, brood about death and dying, and may exhibit suicidal behavior.

Manic episodes, by contrast, are marked by elation, hyperactivity, decreased need for sleep, inflated self-esteem, and increased loud speech, with abrupt changes in topic. The person with mania can, like one with schizophrenia, experience delusions and hallucinations.

The patient suffering from a bipolar disorder alternates between moods of excitement or mania and major depressive episodes.

ANXIETY DISORDERS. Although anxiety is a normal, necessary part of life, when it becomes too severe for a person to control, it can lead to a mental disorder. It is a prominent symptom of both schizophrenia and the affective disorders. In another group of disorders, however, anxiety is the major symptom. These so-called anxiety disorders, which affect some 10 to 15 percent of the general population, can take several forms.

Generalized anxiety disorders are marked by jumpiness, irritability, tension, sweating, heart pounding or racing, and a variety of other symptoms associated with anxiety. The person is apprehensive, on edge, and has problems sleeping. Symptoms persist for a month or more.

People with panic disorder are subject to attacks of panic from out of the blue, with no obvious cause. They become extremely frightened and think they are going to die. They suffer heart palpitations, dizziness, chest pains, a sense of unreality, and other symptoms. The disorder can be limited to a period of a few weeks or months, recur several times, or persist over time. Although the attack itself generally lasts only a few minutes, anticipating the feeling of helplessness or loss of control that accompanies the panic can make the person reluctant to be alone or to leave home.

When these situations recur frequently and normal activities become increasingly constricted, the individual is usually diagnosed as having agoraphobia. This is the most disabling of all the phobias, which are also considered anxiety disorders. The person with agoraphobia usually avoids situations where escape would be difficult or impossible--crowds, tunnels, stores, bridges, elevators, and public transportation. Some people with agoraphobia become so fearful that they never leave their homes for years at a time.

Other types of phobia include simple phobias, the persistent and irrational fear of a specific object, activity, or situation, and social phobias, the irrational fear of humiliating or embarrassing oneself in public.

Yet another anxiety disorder is posttraumatic stress disorder, which is a reaction to a psychologically traumatic event that is outside the range of usual human experience. Wartime combat, bombing, rape, floods, or torture are examples of this type of experience. Symptoms include reexperiencing the event, nonresponsiveness to others, little interest in outside activities, sleeplessness, memory problems, and loss of concentration.

PERSONALITY DISORDERS. The individual with a personality disorder demonstrates a general failure to adjust to socially acceptable norms of behavior and is incapable of establishing adequate social relationships. Characteristic of these disorders are rigid and deeply rooted patterns in relating, perceiving, and thinking. Although personality disorders often become apparent in adolescence or earlier, they may be less obvious in middle and old age. This is especially true of the individual with an antisocial personality, who is in continuous social or legal trouble and appears to profit little from parental or social punishment.

The characteristics of borderline personality are manifested in sudden changes in mood, unstable interpersonal relationships, and proneness to unpredictable actions which could be self-damaging.

An individual with paranoid personality characteristically behaves toward others with unwarranted suspicion, envy, jealousy, and stubborness. He is ready to believe that others have taken advantage of him, even when evidence to the contrary is presented.


People can be helped by a number of therapies. For the serious disorders, such as schizophrenia, depression, manic-depression, and some anxiety disorders, the first line of treatment is usually a drug, a type of medication designed specifically for mental illness and prescribed by a doctor. Electroconvulsive therapy, often referred to as "shock" therapy, can be life-saving for seriously depressed and suicidal individuals, some of whom may not respond to drugs. To help patients adjust to social situations and understand their problems, mental health professionals usually offer other treatments as well. These include one-to-one psychotherapy, group and family therapy, behavior therapy, marital counseling, recreational therapy, occupational therapy, hypnotherapy, behavior modification, art therapy, and psychodrama. The nondrug treatments are often all that is needed to treat many forms of mental disorder.


Psychiatrists (medical doctors), psychiatric social workers, psychologists, psychiatric nurses, mental health counselors and aides, or teachers who are specially trained in the area of mental and emotional illnesses and their treatment are among those who can be of assistance. It is beneficial to discuss problems with a family doctor or clergyman who can offer referral information. Self-help organizations are also beneficial to many who participate.


There are many services available to persons experiencing mental and emotional problems:

* Mental health associations provide information about mental health resources available in your community.

* Professional associations usually have State or local chapters which can help in finding an appropriate professional in the community. These include the State psychological and psychiatric associations or medical societies.

* Family service agencies provide information, referrals, and counseling for individuals and families.

* Self-help organizations, such as the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, Recovery, Inc., and Alcoholics Anonymous, can provide assistance.

* State and local departments of social services, city or county health departments, or county medical associations and others, including Veterans' Administration hospitals, school counseling programs, and private clinics, can also provide help.

State mental hospitals usually maintain special units for intensive short-term treatment and specialized programs for disorders of longer duration. Some private hospitals also have short-term, psychiatric, intensive-care units.

* Community mental health centers provide a myriad of mental health services, including inpatient, outpatient, partial hospitalization, and aftercare services. Also included are services for children and the aged.

To obtain the name and telephone number of mental health services in your community, scan the front cover of your telephone book where police and fire departments list their telephone numbers. Often mental health programs are listed on this page. You can check the Yellow Pages under "mental health," "health," "social services," "suicide prevention," "hospitals," or "physicians." For appropriate numbers, you can also call directory assistance or the operator and request the telephone number of your local mental health center.

Once you make contact with your local mental health clinic, you will meet trained personnel who can answer your questions and provide assistance.

In an emergency situation (e.g., suicidal threat, violent behavior), call the police, or call an ambulance to get to a hospital. You can also contact a mental health hotline or suicide prevention center.


How much you are helped depends on the "fit" between your personality and that of the therapist. It pays to seek help from another if you feel dissatisfied or unaided by a particular therapist.

If you have a mental or emotional problem from time to time or over a long period, try not to be unduly discouraged. Most of us experience some symptoms of stress in the course of living. When stress or its symptoms seem more severe than usual, help should be sought. Remember, you are not alone.
COPYRIGHT 1990 National Institute of Mental Health
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1990, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Publication:Pamphlet by: National Institute of Mental Health
Article Type:pamphlet
Date:Jan 1, 1990
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