Discussing Serious Mental Illness

Serious mental illness involves medical conditions that impair a person’s ability to function in their daily life. Examples of serious mental illnesses include schizophrenia, major depression, and bipolar disorder.  

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, an estimated 11.2 million adults ages 18 and older in the United States experience a serious mental illness. This is an estimated 4.5 percent of all adults in the United States. Like any mental illness, women experience serious mental illness at higher rates than men. An estimated 5.7 percent of women have serious mental illness while 3.3 percent of men have a mental illness. 

Serious Mental Illness

Risk Factors

A number of factors can influence mental health. This includes family history, environment, and things that happened to them throughout their life, such as trauma or the loss of a loved one. The World Health Organization calls these factors the “determinants of mental health.”   Let’s take a look at each determinant. 

Individual Attributes and Behaviors

A person’s family history can affect their mental health. For example, exposure to drugs and alcohol during development in the womb can cause learning disabilities. Some people are also born with chromosome changes that can affect their abilities to learn and think.  

In addition to family history, a person also learns behaviors and how to deal with difficult situations over time. This includes how to respond to the world and changes around them, as well as how to take responsibility for their health. The World Health Organization calls these factors emotional and social intelligence. 

Social and Economic Circumstances

Researchers know that people in lower socioeconomic classes (low-income families) are more likely to struggle with mental illness. Sadly, people in lower socioeconomic classes are often given fewer opportunities to succeed and to engage positively with the world around them. 

Environmental Factors

Environmental factors are aspects of the world a person usually can’t control, but still affect them. An example is a world financial crisis or housing shortage that limits success. A person’s level of access to services like water, essential health services, and a safe environment can also affect mental health. 

These three factors interact with each other to determine a person’s overall mental health and well-being. They can be positive – such as having confidence, supportive family, physical security, and easy access to basic services – or negative, such as having low self-esteem, a history of medical illness, and little access to basic services.  

The World Health Organization reports some groups of people are more likely to have a mental health disorder. These include people who:

  • Live in poverty
  • Have chronic medical conditions, such as diabetes, fibromyalgia, or rheumatoid arthritis
  • Are a part of a minority group
  • Are exposed to traumatic situations, such as war or conflict
  • Have close family members who struggle with mental illness or substance abuse

Doctors also know what happens in a person’s childhood can dramatically affect their mental health later in life. If a person doesn’t grow up in a safe and supportive environment, they may not learn the mental coping skills they need when they become an adult.

Mental Illness and Long-Term Health

Mental illness doesn’t just affect a person’s health at that time – it also can affect overall health for the rest of their lives. For example, a person who struggles with depression has a 40 percent greater risk of having heart problems or a metabolic disease compared to the general population. The risks for these conditions increase when there is a serious mental illness present.

Heart Disease

A person is twice as likely to have heart disease or metabolic disease (like diabetes) if they have a serious mental illness. 

Substance Abuse Disorder

People with mental illness are also more likely to have a substance use disorder. This includes abusing substances such as drugs or alcohol. An estimated 19.3 percent of adults in the United States with mental illness also have a substance use disorder. 

Chronic Illness

Mental illness, especially depression, is a common occurrence in patients with several chronic illnesses. Examples of these illnesses include: 

  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Cancer
  • Coronary artery disease
  • Epilepsy
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Stroke
  • Systemic lupus erythematosus

Doctors have found that mental illness can affect the body and possibly lead to chronic illness in several ways. This includes:

  • Increased inflammation, which can increase the likelihood of disease in the body
  • Changes in regular heart rate and circulation
  • Increased amounts of stress hormones
  • Changes in metabolic function, much like a person who has diabetes

More Severe Symptoms

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, people who experience depression, as well as another medical illness, tend to have more severe symptoms with both illnesses. This can dramatically affect quality of life and increase healthcare costs. 

Get the Help You Need

Getting treated for mental illness can help improve physical health as well as mental health. 

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