Tens of millions of Americans are affected by mental health disorders each year. Anyone can be affected by mental health disorders, regardless of age, race, gender, or socioeconomic status. Through recognizing how common mental disorders are, we gain a greater understanding of the physical, social, and emotional impact they have.
In America, the most common mental disorders are anxiety disorders, mood disorders, psychotic disorders, and eating disorders. Hopefully, with a clearer view of just how universal mental health issues are, we can begin to decrease stigma and help people feel less alone.
Anxiety disorders encompass a cluster of the most common mental disorders, affecting over 40 million adults in the United States.
There are a number of different anxiety disorders, all marked, in some capacity, by feelings of unease, dread, or fear. A range of factors can contribute to the development of an anxiety disorder, with genetics being a leading cause. In addition to genetics, drug use or withdrawing from drugs, certain medical conditions, and stressful life events all can increase one’s likelihood of having an anxiety disorder.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder
Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) affects over 6 million Americans and is characterized by ongoing worry. This persistent worry is not about any one particular thing. People who suffer from GAD may experience heightened worry and concern regarding things like money, health, work, or family. For others, the worry is present but not targeted to any specific thing. People with GAD are also more prone to overthinking and anticipating negative outcomes.
The worry that comes with generalized anxiety disorder can feel overwhelming and out of control. Many who suffer with GAD can often recognize their worrying is irrational but at the same time struggle to stop the worrying.
Panic disorder is diagnosed in people who experience panic attacks. These panic attacks often seem to come on unexpectedly and tend to leave people in fear of a recurring attack. The sudden intense fear that comes with a panic attack is just one of the symptoms. Those who suffer from panic attacks may also experience the following:
- Chills or sweating
- Shortness of breath
- Rapid heart rate
- Chest pain
- Tingling sensation or numbness
Panic attacks can feel so intense that many people think they are having a heart attack. This is especially true for those experiencing their first panic attack.
Social Anxiety Disorder
Social anxiety disorder (sometimes referred to as social phobia) is a common mental disorder. Social anxiety disorder is a fear of social situations that stems from significant concern about being judged by others.
Some with social anxiety disorder experience this fear in all social situations. For others the fear is more situation specific, like when meeting new people or going on a job interview.
Mood disorders, also called affective disorders, are amongst the most common mental disorders. There are several mood disorders, some marked by ongoing feelings of sadness or hopelessness, and others by fluctuations between extreme happiness and significant sadness. The mood disorders most frequently diagnosed are major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, and cyclothymic disorder. Many factors can contribute to the development of a mood disorder. Some people have an imbalance in brain chemicals which can lead to a mood disorder while others may develop a mood disorder following a stressful life event. Mood disorders also can run in families.
Major Depressive Disorder
Major depressive disorder (MDD) is diagnosed in people who experience sadness and/or irritability for a prolonged period of time. The physical, emotional, and behavioral side effects of MDD tend to affect the ability to function in many areas of life including:
- Loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities
- Changes in sleep
- Changes in appetite
- Decreased energy levels
- Difficulty concentrating
- Feelings of worthlessness
- Self-harm thoughts
The exact cause of MDD is still unknown. Nonetheless there are certain things that can increase the likelihood of developing major depressive disorder such as genetic predisposition, history of abuse, and alcohol/drug use.
Bipolar disorder (previously called manic depression) is a mental health disorder that causes significant shifts in mood, concentration, and energy levels. Bipolar disorder is usually diagnosed in adolescence or early adulthood. There are three types of bipolar disorder, bipolar I, bipolar II, and cyclothymic disorder. All three types of bipolar disorder involve these shifts in mood, concentration, and energy, but to different degrees.
Bipolar I is marked by manic episodes (feeling extremely elated, energized, or “up”) that last at least a week, followed by depressive episodes (feeling very sad, hopeless, or “down”).
Bipolar II looks similar to bipolar I with the exception of the manic episodes. Instead those with bipolar II experience period of hypomania. Hypomania still brings about a sense of feeling “up” but not to the extent of full-blown mania.
Cyclothymic disorder involves periods of hypomanic symptoms followed by periods of depressive symptoms. This is a separate diagnosis from bipolar I and II because the hypomanic and depressive symptoms do not meet the full diagnostic criteria for them to be considered hypomanic or depressive episodes. To be diagnosed with cyclothymic disorder the symptoms must last for at least 2 years.
Psychotic disorders are another group of common mental disorders. Psychotic disorders affect the mind and involved distortions in thinking and awareness. The most common symptoms of psychotic disorders are hallucinations and delusions. Hallucinations are the experience of seeing images or hearing sounds that are not real. Delusions are false beliefs that are believed to be true, despite contradictory evidence. The exact cause of psychotic disorders is unknown, but there are some theories. Extreme stress or trauma, brain diseases, and heavy drug use have all been posited as increasing one’s likelihood of developing a psychotic disorder.
Schizophrenia is the most frequently diagnosed psychotic disorder. Schizophrenia affects how a person behaves, thinks, and feels. This mental disorder can cause a person to lose touch with reality, causing major distress for the individual and their loved ones. Schizophrenia is usually diagnosed in between the late teens to early thirties and is more common in men.
Symptoms of schizophrenia fall into three categories – psychotic symptoms, negative symptoms, and cognitive symptoms. Psychotic symptoms include changes in perceptions (i.e. – hallucinations), abnormal thinking (delusions), paranoia, and disordered thought and speech. Negative symptoms involve decreased motivation, lack of enjoyment in activities, social isolation, and difficulty showing emotions. Cognitive symptoms such as problems with concentration, memory, and attention are also typically experienced by those with schizophrenia
Schizoaffective disorder is a mental disorder that is diagnosed in those who present a combination of schizophrenia symptoms (such as delusions or hallucinations) and symptoms of a mood disorder (like depression or mania). There are two types of schizoaffective disorder, based on the mood disorder involved – the depressive type and the bipolar type. The bipolar type involves the highs (manic episodes) and lows (depressive episodes) seen in bipolar while the depressive type only involves episodes of depression. Depressive episodes usually bring decreased energy, lack of motivation, difficulty performing everyday tasks, and a sense of hopelessness. The mania experienced by those with the bipolar type of schizoaffective disorder brings increased energy, difficulty sleeping, and reckless behavior.
Schizoaffective disorder can look different from person to person, and the wide range of symptoms makes it difficult to diagnose. The signs of schizoaffective disorder usually show up in adolescence or early adulthood, as impaired functioning at work, school, or in social settings becomes evident.
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Psychotic disorders are serious and can cause significant problems in those who suffer. But with the right treatment, it is possible to manage symptoms, live a normal life, and even thrive.
Eating disorders are a group of related mental disorders that cause significant physical and emotional issues. Eating disorders can affect anyone at any age but are most commonly diagnosed in adolescent girls and young women. Although all eating disorders involve severe body image and food issues, each disorder has unique symptoms.
People with anorexia nervosa restrict their caloric intake to achieve weight loss. This restricting behavior means denying hunger cues and refusing to eat, sometimes to the point of self-starvation. For some with anorexia, the prolonged periods of restricting can lead to binge-eating (eating large quantities of food in a short period of time). The swinging between restricting and binging can become a vicious cycle.
Anorexia takes a dangerous tool on the body. Over time, inadequate nutrition can lead to very low body weight, changes in menstrual cycles, irregular heart rate, low blood pressure, dehydration, and constipation.
Those with anorexia usually experience a fear of eating around other people and thus tend to withdraw socially.
Bulimia nervosa is an eating disorder where people binge-eat and then attempt to rid their bodies of the food just ingested, or purge. Purging behaviors include self-induced vomiting, laxative use, or excessive exercise. People with bulimia purge as a way to not gain weight from the extra calorie intake. And while those with bulimia can have a range of body shapes and sizes, they tend to be normal weight.
The cycle of bingeing and purging inherent to bulimia controls many aspects of a person’s life and results in negative effects, both emotionally and physically. Feeling out of control around food can contribute to a sense of guilt and shame. Those with bulimia frequently experience low self-esteem and self-worth, especially in terms of body image. And like anorexia, bulimia can lead to serious physical issues.
Binge-eating disorder (BED) is compulsively overeating. Typically, BED develops in those who use food as a way to cope with uncomfortable emotions, stress, or difficult life events. Binge-eating disorder is not just overeating. It is an ongoing and pervasive mental disorder where people eat very large amounts of food in a short time frame. To be diagnosed with BED one must experience binge-eating at least 1 day per week for 3 or more months. Other signs of binge-eating disorder include:
- Isolating – People with BED isolate so they can eat alone, in an attempt to hide their behavior.
- Food hoarding – stockpiling and hiding food is common for those with BED.
- Food rituals – food rituals like not letting foods touch on the plate or chewing a certain number of times are common in BED.
Binge-eating disorder can lead to weight gain, but not always; not everyone with BED is overweight.
Mental health disorders affect the mood, behavior, cognitions, and overall wellbeing of those affected. Yet, struggling with a mental illness does not have to mean a lifetime of suffering. There are many treatment options when it comes to mental disorders, with more being developed all the time. In May 2020, the National Institute of Mental Health released it’s “Strategic Plan for Research” which provides a framework for expanding research that supports the advancement of the treatment of mental illnesses through clinical research.