Mental Health Issues and Disorders

Mental illnesses are health conditions that involve changes in emotions, thinking, or behavior (or any combination of these). Typically, mental illness is associated with distress and/or problems functioning in social activities, whether in family, work, or other public settings

For Mental Health Awareness Month, the editorial team at STM Learning wanted to bring attention to some of the more common mental health issues and disorders. Mental illnesses are incredibly common; in fact, nearly 1 in 5 adults in the United States experience some form of mental illness and 1 in 24 have a severe mental illness (eg, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder). 

This article will include a brief overview of some of the mental health issues and illnesses that are more prevalent, though this is not at all a comprehensive list of disorders or their symptoms. 


Depression is more than low moods or brief periods of feeling sad or moody; it’s feeling sadness or moodiness in a very intense way over extended periods of time (ie, weeks, months, or even years). Beyond this, depression is a debilitating condition that affects both mental and physical health.

A person may be depressed if they constantly feel sad or miserable or if they no longer enjoy or look forward to most of their usual activities. There are lots of symptoms of depression, including recurring feelings and/or thoughts, behavioral symptoms, and physical health issues. Some of these physical symptoms include being tired all the time, feeling sick or “run down,” frequent head or stomach aches, a change in appetite, and significant weight gain or loss.

Several things can contribute to a person’s development of depression. In general, it’s not just a singular event that causes depression, but a build-up of biological, psychological, and social factors. These factors may include a family history of depression, personality (ie, being more sensitive to social criticism, perfectionists, having low self-esteem), serious medical conditions through associated stress, and drug and alcohol use. Adverse life events may also trigger depression, especially for individuals who are already at risk due to the previously mentioned factors.

Oftentimes, depression isn’t recognized and goes untreated. Letting depression go untreated can have significant effects on health, so if experiencing these symptoms, one should go to a primary care provider who can then offer further steps to take. Medication and therapy are common treatments for depression.

Anxiety Disorders

With mental health disorders, we come to a more broad group of anxiety disorders, which can also correlate with depression. While everyone is capable of being anxious, not all anxiety is a disorder. When we refer to anxiety disorders, we aren’t talking about getting nervous over an interview or a first date. Anxiety disorders cause an excessive and almost irrational anxiety that overtakes the affected person’s daily life. Some of the symptoms of anxiety disorders include panic or anxiety attacks (or a fear of having them), physical reactions to anxiety (eg, trembling, sweating, faintness, rapid heart beat), and going to extreme lengths to avoid situations that may induce anxiety.

There are several different types of anxiety disorders:

  • Generalized anxiety disorder
  • Fear of social situations (ie, social phobias)
  • Phobias (eg, claustrophobia)
  • Panic disorders (ie, frequent and debilitating panic attacks)

These disorders can lead to isolation and depression, and they may cause issues in relationships, work, and everyday life. Anxiety disorders tend to go hand-in-hand with depression, and so it is important to seek help if you have an anxiety disorder. There are various treatments for anxiety disorders that include medication, various types of therapy, and anxiety management techniques.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

You may know this disorder by its acronym OCD, but the clinical name is obsessive compulsive disorder. OCD can cause a person to experience recurrent and insistent thoughts, intrusive images or impulses (ie, obsessions), and it can also drive someone to perform repetitive and ritualistic actions (ie, compulsions). Obsessions and compulsions vary from person-to-person, and they can change in nature or severity.

Obsessions typically stem from everyday concerns or worries that the person’s brain will then exaggerate. Examples of obsessions include a fear of germs and contamination, fears of harm from illness or accidents, an excessive concern with symmetry, needing to know and remember certain things, or intrusive thoughts and images surrounding sex, violence, or other issues. These obsessions may constantly be on someone’s mind, or they could be triggered by objects, smells, or something heard in a conversation. 

Compulsions are repetitive actions or thoughts that are usually carried out in a particular pattern or in accordance with certain rules. Typically, compulsions are performed to prevent the obsessive fear from happening, to reduce anxiety caused by the obsessive thought, or to just make things “feel right.” Compulsions can include: excessive hand washing or cleaning of the house; excessive checking of locks, appliances, or anything involving safety; repeating routines or actions like reading, walking, picking up something, or opening a door; applying rigid rules and patterns to where and how objects are placed; touching or tapping a certain way or a certain number of times; and mentally repeating words or numbers a certain number of times (usually focusing on “good” or “safe” numbers such as multiples of 5, perfect squares, evens, etc.) All of these compulsions provide short-term relief from the anxiety caused by their obsessions.

Obsessions and compulsions can have an overall negative effect on life, as they can take up many hours of the day and can interfere with relationships, education, and employment. As OCD progresses, it may lead to avoidance of the stressors, which can leave many people with OCD homebound. It can also compound with depression and other anxiety disorders. A primary care physician will be able to help provide the care needed to combat OCD, whether with therapy, medication, support groups, or management techniques.

Eating Disorders

Another branch of mental illness is eating disorders. People of all ages, genders, backgrounds, and cultures can be affected by eating disorders, and the number of people affected by them is increasing. The most common risk factors for onset of eating disorders include body dissatisfaction, dieting, and depression. Most commonly, young women are diagnosed with eating disorders, and while men and nonbinary individuals also experience eating disorders their numbers are lower as they are more undiagnosed.

There are 3 main types of eating disorders:

  • Anorexia nervosa: restricted eating, weight loss, and fear of gaining weight
  • Bulimia nervosa: periods of (often secretive) binge eating, followed by “compensation”  in the form of excessive exercise, vomiting, or periods of strict dieting
  • Binge eating disorder: recurrent periods of binge eating (eg, eating much more than usual, eating until uncomfortably full, eating large amounts when not feeling hungry)

Some of the warning signs for these disorders can include:

  • Weight loss, gain, or fluctuation – usually due to dieting, but sometimes from an illness or stressful situation
  • Preoccupation with body appearance or weight
  • Sensitivity to cold
  • Faintness, dizziness, and fatigue
  • Increased mood changes and irritability
  • Social withdrawal
  • Inability to think rationally or concentrate
  • Obsessive rituals, such as only drinking out of a certain cup
  • Eating in secret
  • Drastic changes in clothing style
  • Excessive or fluctuating exercise patterns and constant/excessive dieting
  • Avoidance of social situations involving food or frequent excuses not to eat
  • Disappearance of large amounts of food from the refrigerator or pantry
  • Trips to the bathroom after meals

Like many other mental health disorders, there is no single cause for an eating disorder. Biological, social, and psychological factors all play a part in varying degrees. Some of these factors include social media presentations on an “ideal body,” cultural ideas of body image, certain occupations or activities, major life changes or events, the accumulation of minor stressors, genetic and familial factors, negative body image, and having other mental health disorders.

Getting help for eating disorders is crucial. Recovery can be a slow process, as developing a healthy relationship with food and exercise takes time. 

Posttraumatic Stress Disorder

Witnessing or directly experiencing traumatic events can cause a person to develop posttraumatic stress disorder, also known as PTSD. Typically, PTSD is associated with soldiers, but it can also be caused by serious accidents, physical or sexual assault, natural disasters, and war-related events.

Some of the symptoms of PTSD can include:

  • Reliving the traumatic event through unwanted and recurring memories, flashbacks, or nightmares (can induce severe and intense physical reactions)
  • Feeling numb, empty, or detached in order to avoid reminders of the traumatic event
  • Feeling angry, afraid, or guilty; developing beliefs such as “I’m bad” or “The world’s unsafe”; and feeling cut off from others.
  • Being overly alert, which can cause difficulties sleeping, irritability, or a lack of concentration

PTSD can affect all aspects of a person’s life, including work, day-to-day activities, and relationships with family and friends. Someone with PTSD may seem distant or disinterested as they attempt to block out any painful memories. Support from family and friends is crucial for the recovery process, and getting help from a professional may be needed if symptoms are still present after 2 weeks.

With any mental health issue, there are always steps that can be taken to help manage or cure the symptoms. The most important part of recovery though is ensuring that the person knows that they are not alone.

This blog was written by STM Learning’s editorial staff for educational purposes only. It is not intended to give specific medical or legal advice. For expert information on the discussed subjects, please refer to STM Learning’s publications


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