FACE Mental Illness

What is Mental Illness?

There are different kinds of mental disorders each characterized by different sets of symptoms that affect how we think, feel and behave. Symptoms can include depressed mood, extreme mood swings, disturbances in thought or perception, obsessions or fears, or other overwhelming feelings of anxiety. Most mental disorders cannot be definitively diagnosed with an objective medical test. Diagnosis is usually based on self-report (what you say you are experiencing), observations by family and friends, disturbances in your behaviour, psychological tests and the judgment and experience of a health professional (your family doctor and/or a specialized mental health professional such as a psychiatrist or psychologist).

Often people wait a long time before they ask for help and sometimes, unfortunately, people do not ask for help for a mental health problem at all. They and their family feel that something is wrong – but they don’t know what. They may not know where to go to get help or may be reluctant to ask for help if they do. In addition, diagnosing a mental disorder can take time – with many people reporting that it took months, and sometimes years to get a diagnosis that fit with what they were experiencing.

There are a number of reasons people struggle with a mental disorders without reaching out for help: They simply don’t know what’s wrong and feel they are just “different;” they feel they can beat it on their own; they are ashamed and try to hide their symptoms; exasperated family and friends tell them to “get over it;” or they reach out for help but their first experience leaves them feeling disregarded and misunderstood.

Yet we know that the earlier people get help, the better the outcome.

One way to get help for yourself or someone you know as soon as possible is to educate yourself about what a mental disorder looks like.

First of all, a mental disorder is not just a feeling or reaction to an experience or event. There are different kinds of disorders and each is identified by a collection of different symptoms that persist for a specific period of time and significantly interfere with a person’s roles, activities, relationships and/or capacity for self care.
Mental disorders can affect almost every aspect of a person’s life over a considerable period of time. Many mental disorders begin in childhood and some are almost always first diagnosed in childhood. Other disorders, such as those that affect thinking like dementia or amnesia, may be related to age, physical injury or other medical conditions. However, people can, and do, successfully cope with and recover from mental disorders.


People with depression are not just sad. Their depressed mood is constant and lasts for a period of time and/or leads to a loss of interest or ability to enjoy and accomplish usual activities.

They lose interest in work and relationships. They can be irritable. They may experience sudden weight gain or weight loss.

They may sleep all the time or very little. They have difficulty getting up to face the day.

They may drink excessively or use drugs to help manage their overwhelming feelings.

They have thoughts such as “the world would be better off without me.” Some act on these thoughts and attempt suicide.

Others hide what they are really thinking and put on a brave face when among others.

Bipolar disorder:

People with bipolar disorder (previously called manic depression) experience emotional extremes. In the manic phase of their illness, they can be hyperactive and show poor judgment, or have faulty beliefs and perceptions that lead to risky behaviours or financial losses.

In the depressive phase, they experience the symptoms described above under depression.

People with bipolar disorder may use alcohol of drugs to try and manage their symptoms and they may attempt suicide. They also may come into contact with the law due to the behaviours while in a manic phase.

While the depressive phase is extremely painful, the manic phase can be a euphoric experience with many people with bipolar disorder remembering these times as an exciting and very wild ride – until they had to face the consequences.


People with schizophrenia experience disturbances in their thoughts and perceptions. They can hear voices or see things that aren’t there. They may also hold beliefs that others find bizarre or that are not accurate – for example, they are a famous person, they are being followed, or the television sends them secret messages.

Sometimes these thoughts and delusions are friendly, but in other instances they are frightening. They can get so caught up in this inner world that they isolate themselves from others, forget to shower or eat and withdraw from usual activities.

When questioned about what is going on, they may make no sense at all as their ability to communicate can be disturbed.

The symptoms of schizophrenia most commonly emerge when people are in their late teens or early adulthood.

Anxiety disorders:

This is a collection of problems that involve, in one way or another, excessive worry, fear, avoidance and irritability.

Examples are:

  • Panic attacks where the heart races, people break out in a sweat and they can, literally, feel they are about to die;
  • Agoraphobia characterized by extreme fear of leaving home or of deviating from a highly prescribed pattern of travel (for example, to work and back but nowhere else);
  • Social phobia where people are so anxious in the presence of unfamiliar others that they avoid social situations;
  • Various phobias where people have strong fears that are out of proportion and often related to objects, animals, reptiles or insects, experiences (flying or heights), needles, or the sight of blood (as only a few examples);
  • Obsessive compulsive disorder where, for example, people perform certain acts repetitively (hand washing, repeating a certain string of numbers, touching a certain object – there are endless examples) in the belief that doing so will prevent some feared event or consequence;
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) which emerges after a person has witnessed or experienced an event where they feared for their life (or another’s) and felt they could do nothing to save themselves (or the other person). PTSD is characterized by intrusive memories (flashbacks) of the event just as if it were happening all over again, avoidance of anything that reminds them of the event (sounds, places, or smells), emotional numbing, lack of concentration, sleep disturbances and nightmares, explosive anger and jumpiness (easily startled).

Eating disorders:

These disorders emerge when people (most typically girls and women, but some boys and men as well) either starve themselves even when they are very underweight (anorexia nervosa) or, alternatively eat huge amounts of food (binge) and then cause themselves to vomit (purge) – bulimia. Both disorders can involve the mis-use of laxatives.

Anorexia is particularly dangerous as persistent starvation affects organ function and can ultimately result in death. People with anorexia have disturbed body images in that they perceive themselves as fat even when they are skin and bone.

Bulimia can result in damage to the oesophagus, mouth and teeth due to repeated exposure to the corrosive nature of acidic vomit.

Personality disorders:

These involve patterns or ways of thinking, feeling and behaving, in relation to oneself and others, that are longstanding, not easily changed and lead to distress for the individual and problems across a wide range of life circumstances and situations. Being longstanding, personality disorders often have their roots in childhood experiences and events.

* Original content developed by Barbara Everett, Ph. D., revised by CAMIMH in 2009