Understanding Mental Illness

A mental illness or disorder is a disturbance of the mind that interferes with normal behaviour and affects daily activities. Symptoms of most mental illnesses are dysfunctionally exaggerated forms of the usual behaviours and feelings we experience.

How are Mental Illnesses Diagnosed?

  • Clinical observation/reported symptoms
  • Tests to rule out general medical conditions or effects of substances (e.g., brain scan, blood test for thyroid)

Myth: Mental illnesses are not real medical illnesses like heart disease and diabetes. People who have them are just “crazy”.
Fact: Mental disorders are medical illnesses just like heart disease and diabetes. Research shows there are genetic and biological causes for mental illness, and they can be treated effectively, especially with early detection and intervention.
Myth: Stress causes mental illness.
Fact: The specific causes of mental illness are not yet fully understood. Stress and factors such as genetic predisposition and abnormalities in brain chemicals are possible contributing factors.
Myth: People with mental illness are violent and dangerous.
Fact: People with mental illness are no more violent than the general population. In fact, they are far more likely to be the victims of violence than to be violent themselves.
Myth: People with mental illness are poor and/or less intelligent.
Fact: Mental illness, like physical illness, can affect anyone regardless of intelligence, social class or income level. Famous people with various mental illnesses include mathematician John Nash, Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, Ludwig van Beethoven, Vincent van Gogh and Ernest Hemingway.
Myth: If I have a mental illness, it is a sign of weakness – it’s my fault.
Fact: A mental illness is an illness, not a character flaw. It has nothing to do with being weak or lacking will-power. Although people with mental illness can play a big part in their own recovery, they did not choose to become ill.
Myth: People with mental illnesses can’t be helped.
Fact: The best treatments for serious mental illnesses today are highly effective. With appropriate medication, psychotherapy and rehabilitation services, most people who live with serious mental illnesses can significantly reduce the impact of their illness and find a satisfying measure of achievement and independence. A key concept is to develop expertise in developing strategies to manage the illness process.
Myth: Mental illnesses are uncommon.
Fact: Four of the 10 leading causes of disability worldwide are mental disorders. Among developed nations, major depression is the leading cause of disability. Also near the top of these rankings are bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.


The definition of recovery is unique, as it is determined by each individual with illness. Some of the common themes of recovery include:

  • Hope
  • Having close relationships with others
  • Taking control of one’s life
  • Accepting responsibility for personal wellness
  • Having meaning and purpose in life
  • Developing coping strategies


See your doctor. A physician can determine whether the symptoms that alarm you are due to a mental disorder, another medical condition, or both. It is also advisable for you to talk to a mental health professional to help you develop treatment strategies. If medication is prescribed, adhering to the regimen is important to minimise the risk of relapse. Early identification and treatment is of vital importance. By ensuring access to the treatment and rehabilitation supports that are proven effective, recovery is maximised.

  • Learn about the disorder and the recovery process
  • Be hopeful, respectful, encouraging and supportive
  • Do not dismiss emotions. Understand the person’s perspectives and offer hope
  • Encourage the person to seek and sustain professional treatment
  • Do not ignore comments about suicide. Work together with the helping professionals in reducing the risk of suicide
  • Revise expectations and set realistic goals
  • Practice good self-care

“Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of, but stigma and bias shame us all.” – Bill Clinton