Mental illness is a term that describes a broad range of mental and emotional conditions. Mental illness also refers to one portion of the broader ADA term mental impairment, and is different from other covered mental impairments such as mental retardation, organic brain damage, and learning disabilities. The term ‘psychiatric disability’ is used when mental illness significantly interferes with the performance of major life activities, such as learning, working and communicating, among others.
Someone can experience a mental illness over many years. The type, intensity and duration of symptoms vary from person to person. They come and go and do not always follow a regular pattern, making it difficult to predict when symptoms and functioning will flare-up, even if treatment recommendations are followed. The symptoms of mental illness often are effectively controlled through medication and/or psychotherapy, and may even go into remission. For some people, the illness continues to cause periodic episodes that require treatment. Consequently, some people with mental illness will need no support, others may need only occasional support, and still others may require more substantial, ongoing support to maintain their productivity.
The most common forms of mental illness are anxiety disorders, mood disorders, and schizophrenia disorders. Brief introductory information about these conditions is presented in this section for educational purposes only.
Anxiety disorders, the most common group of mental illnesses, are characterized by severe fear or anxiety associated with particular objects and situations. Most people with anxiety disorders try to avoid exposure to the situation that causes anxiety.
- Panic disorder – the sudden onset of paralyzing terror or impending doom with symptoms that closely resemble a heart attack
- Phobias – excessive fear of particular objects (simple phobias), situations that expose a person to the possible judgment of others (social phobias), or situations where escape might be difficult (agoraphobia)
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder – persistent distressing thoughts (obsessions) that a person attempts to alleviate by performing repetitive, intentional acts (compulsions) such as hand washing
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – a psychological syndrome characterized by specific symptoms that result from exposure to terrifying, life-threatening trauma such as an act of violence, war, or a natural disaster
Mood disorders are also known as affective disorders or depressive disorders. These illnesses share disturbances or changes in mood, usually involving either depression or mania (elation). With appropriate treatment, more than 80% of people with depressive disorders improve substantially.
- Major depression – an extreme or prolonged episode of sadness in which a person loses interest or pleasure in previously enjoyed activities
- Bipolar disorder (also referred to as manic-depressive illness) – alternating episodes of mania ("highs") and depression ("lows")
- Dysthymia – continuous low-grade symptoms of major depression and anxiety
- Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) – a form of major depression that occurs in the fall or winter and may be related to shortened periods of daylight
Research has not yet determined whether schizophrenia is a single disorder or a group of related illnesses. The illness is highly complex, and few generalizations hold true for all people diagnosed with schizophrenia disorders. However, most people initially develop the symptoms between the ages of 15 and 25. Typically, the illness is characterized by thoughts that seem fragmented and difficulty processing information.
Symptoms of schizophrenia disorders are categorized as either "negative" or "positive." Negative symptoms include social isolation or withdrawal, loss of motivation, and a flat or inappropriate affect (mood or disposition). Positive symptoms include hallucinations, delusions, and thought disorders.
*Adapted from Zuckerman, D., Debenham, K. & Moore, K. (1993) The ADA and People with Mental Illness: A Resource Manual for Employers. Available from the National Mental Health Association, 1021 Prince Street, Alexandria, VA 22314-2971, (703)684-7722.
I can speak to those disorders and give a first hand account of my experience dealing with these. Read my story here.
For additional information on other Mental Illness disorders see the following: