Mental health problems are very common and affect 1 in 4 of the UK population. A mental health disorder or mental illness is a psychological pattern, potentially reflected in behaviour, that is generally associated with distress or disability, and which is not considered part of normal development of a person’s culture. Mental health disorders take many different forms and affect people in different ways. Schizophrenia, depression and personality disorders are all types of mental health problems. Diseases such as dementia generally develop in old age, whereas eating disorders are more common in young people.
The following could all be indicative of possible mental ill health: Irritability, hostility, panic attacks, psychosomatic complaints, depression, increased risk of suicide, withdrawal, anxiety, low self esteem, burn out and unusual displays of emotion such as tearfulness or being unusually cheerful.
There is no single cause of mental health problems and the reasons they develop are complex. Stigma and discrimination is still very common and there are a lot of myths about what different diagnoses mean.
Depression is more than simply feeling unhappy or fed up for a few days. Depression affects people in many different ways and can cause a wide variety of symptoms. They range from lasting feelings of sadness and hopelessness to losing interest in the things you used to enjoy and feeling very tearful or anxious. There can be physical symptoms too, such as feeling constantly tired, sleeping badly, having no appetite or sex drive and complaining of various aches and pains. The severity of the symptoms can vary. At its mildest, you may simply feel persistently low in spirit, while at its most severe, depression can make you feel suicidal and that life is no longer worth living.
Anxiety is a feeling of unease, such as worry or fear that can be mild or severe. Everyone experiences feelings of anxiety at some point in their life. For example, you may feel worried and anxious about sitting an exam or having a medical test or job interview. Feeling anxious is sometimes perfectly normal. However, people with generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) find it hard to control their worries. Their feelings of anxiety are more constant and often affect their daily life.
Schizophrenia is a long-term mental health condition that causes a range of different psychological symptoms. It is still commonly thought of as a split personality but the Jekyll and Hyde characterisation is a myth and in reality the condition has a far more complex range of symptoms which include hallucinations where a person hears or sees things that do not exist and delusions, which are unusual beliefs not based on reality and often contradict the evidence. Hallucinations and delusions will usually lead to muddled thoughts and other unusual changes in behaviour and Doctors describe schizophrenia as a psychotic illness, meaning that a person may not be able to distinguish their own thoughts and ideas from reality.
Bipolar disorder – previously known as manic depression – is a condition that affects moods, which commonly swing from one extreme to another. If you have bipolar disorder you will often have periods or ‘episodes’ of depression, when your mood is very low and mania, when your mood and energy levels are very high. However, there are some that only go “high” and others who only get depressed so again, the reality for any one individual is often more complicated than the stereotype.
Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is a long-term mental health condition that is usually associated with obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviour. An obsession is an unwanted, unpleasant thought, image or urge that repeatedly enters a person’s mind and results in anxiety. A compulsion is a repetitive behaviour or mental act that a person feels compelled to perform to try to avert or undo the effect of the obsession. Unlike the normal use of the word ‘obsession’, which may describe something that an individual enjoys, the obsession in OCD is unpleasant and frightening. The person feels the need to carry out their compulsion in order to prevent their obsession becoming true. For example, someone who is obsessively scared that they will catch a disease may feel compelled to have a shower every time they use a toilet.
There are many more mental health diagnoses and good sources of further information are www.nhs.uk and www.mind.org.uk. However, regardless of the above, the first you will often hear about someone’s mental health problem is when you receive a fit note from the GP with “depression”, “anxiety”, “stress”, “debility” or similar phrase. There may have been signs but maybe not. Much mental illness is idiopathic – it happens anyway, spontaneously and without any known reason. Sometimes it is blamed on work, other times on home life or a combination of the two. Most of the time it is very genuine but because you can’t see the broken leg or evidence of other physical injury or complaint, sympathy isn’t always easy to give but if you could feel what the ill person feels, you would not want to go there. All you know is that a colleague or member of staff is now not at work.