Working Together For

Quality Mental Health Services

Frequently Asked Questions

About Mental Illnesses

What does it mean to have a mental illness?

Mental illnesses are medical conditions that disrupt a person’s thinking, feeling, mood, ability to relate to others, and daily functioning. Just as diabetes is a disorder of the pancreas, mental illnesses are medical conditions that often result in a diminished capacity for coping with the ordinary demands of life.

Some of the more common disorders are depression, bipolar disorder, dementia, schizophrenia and anxiety disorders. Symptoms may include changes in mood, personality, personal habits and/or social withdrawal. When these occur in children under 18, they are referred to as serious emotional disturbances (SEDs). Mental illnesses can affect persons of any age, race, religion, or income.

Here are some important facts about mental illness and recovery:
  • Mental illnesses are biologically based brain disorders. They cannot be overcome through "will power" and are not related to a person's "character" or intelligence.
  • Mental disorders fall along a continuum of severity. Even though mental disorders are widespread in the population, the main burden of illness is concentrated in a much smaller proportion — about 6 percent, or 1 in 17 Americans — who suffer from a serious mental illness. It is estimated that mental illness affects 1 in 5 families in America.
  • Mental illnesses usually strike individuals in the prime of their lives, often during adolescence and young adulthood. All ages are susceptible, but the young and the old are especially vulnerable.
  • The best treatments for serious mental illnesses today are highly effective; between 70 and 90 percent of individuals have significant reduction of symptoms and improved quality of life with a combination of pharmacological and psychosocial treatments and supports.
  • With appropriate effective medication and a wide range of services tailored to their needs, 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.
  • Early identification and treatment is of vital importance. By ensuring access to the treatment and recovery supports that are proven effective, recovery is accelerated and the further harm related to the course of illness is minimized.
  • What is considered a serious mental illness?

    Serious mental illnesses include major depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), panic disorder, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and borderline personality disorder. All mental disorders fall along a continuum of severity.

    What causes mental illness?

    Although the exact cause of most mental illnesses is not known, it is becoming clear through research that many of these conditions are caused by a combination of biological, psychological, and environmental factors.

    Is anyone immune to mental illness?

    Mental illnesses can affect persons of any age, race, religion,or income. They do not discriminate.

    Although mental illnesses can affect anyone, certain conditions such as eating disorders tend to occur more often in females, and other disorders such as attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder more commonly occur in children.

    Can mental illness be prevented?

    Most mental illnesses are caused by a combination of factors and cannot be prevented.

    Once someone has had a mental illness can they ever get better again?

    Remember, most people with mental illnesses who are diagnosed and treated, will respond well and live productive lives. Many never have the same problem again, although some will experience a return of symptoms. The important thing is that there is a range of Remember, most people with mental illnesses who are diagnosed and treated, will respond well and live productive lives. Many never have the same problem again, although some will experience a return of symptoms. The important thing is that there is a range of effective treatments for just about every mental disorder effective treatments for just about every mental disorder

    How common is mental illness?

    Mental illnesses are very common; in fact, they are more common than cancer, diabetes or heart disease. According to the U.S. Surgeon General, an estimated 23% of American adults (those ages 18 and older) or about 44 million people, and about 20% of American children suffer from a mental disorder during a given year.

    Even though mental disorders are widespread in the population, the main burden of illness is concentrated in a much smaller proportion, about 6 percent, or 1 in 17 Americans, who suffer from a serious mental illness (one that significantly interferes with functioning). It is estimated that mental illness affects 1 in 5 families in America.

    Further, more than 7 million American adults, and more than 5 million children and adolescents suffer from a serious mental condition (one that significantly interferes with functioning)

    What are some of the warning signs of mental illness?

    Symptoms of mental disorders vary depending on the type and severity of the condition. Some general symptoms that may suggest a mental disorder include:

    In adults:
    • Confused thinking
    • Long-lasting sadness or irritability
    • Extreme highs and lows in mood
    • Excessive fear, worrying or anxiety
    • Social withdrawal
    • Dramatic changes in eating or sleeping habits
    • Strong feelings of anger
    • Delusions or hallucinations (seeing or hearing things that are not really there)
    • Increasing inability to cope with daily problems and activities
    • Thoughts of suicide
    • Denial of obvious problems
    • Many unexplained physical problems
    • Abuse of drugs and/or alcohol
    In older children and pre-teens:
    • Abuse of drugs and/or alcohol
    • Inability to cope with daily problems and activities
    • Changes in sleeping and/or eating habits
    • Excessive complaints of physical problems
    • Defying authority, skipping school, stealing or damaging property
    • Intense fear of gaining weight
    • Long-lasting negative mood, often along with poor appetite and thoughts of death
    • Frequent outbursts of anger
    In younger children:
    • Changes in school performance
    • Poor grades despite strong efforts
    • Excessive worrying or anxiety
    • Hyperactivity
    • Persistent nightmares
    • Persistent disobedience and/or aggressive behavior
    • Frequent temper tantrums
  • What should I do if I know someone who appears to have all of the symptoms of a serious mental disorder?

    Although this website cannot substitute for professional advice, we encourage those with symptoms to talk to their friends and family members. If you know someone who is having problems, don't just think that they will snap out of it. Let them know that you care about them, and there are ways this can be treated. Notify a family member, a mental health professional, a counselor or someone if you think you have symptoms or if a friend has symptoms. The more you or your friends realize how many people care about them, the more likely it will be that treatment will be sought.

    What is the difference between mental health professionals?

    There are many types of mental health professionals. The variety of providers and their services may be confusing. Each have various levels of education, training, and may have different areas of expertise. Finding the professional who best fits your needs may require some research.

    What treatment options are available?

    Just as there are different types of medications for physical illness, different treatment options are available for individuals with mental illness. Treatment works differently for different people. It is important to find what works best for you or your child.

    If I become involved in treatment what do I need to know?

    Beginning treatment is a big step for individuals and families and can be very overwhelming. It is important to continue involvement in the treatment process as much as possible. Some questions you will need to have answered include:
    • What is known about the cause of this particular illness?
    • Are there other diagnoses where these symptoms are common?
    • Do you normally include a physical or neurological examination?
    • Are there any additional tests or exams that you would recommend at this point?
    • Would you advise an independent opinion from another psychiatrist at this point?
    • What program of treatment is the most helpful with this diagnosis?
    • Will this program involve services by other specialists? If so, who will be responsible for coordinating these services?
    • What do you see as the family’s role in this program of treatment?
    • How much access will the family have to the individuals who are providing the treatment?
    • What medications are generally used with this diagnosis? What is the biological effect of this medication, and what do you expect it to accomplish? What are the risks associated with the medication? How soon will we be able to tell if the medication is effective, and how will we know?
    • How much experience do you have in treating individuals with this illness?
    • What can I do to help you in the treatment?

    What do I need to know about medications?

    The best source of information regarding medications is the physician prescribing them. He or she should be able to answer questions such as:
    • What is the medication supposed to do and when should it begin to take effect?
    • How is the medication taken and for how long?
    • What food, drinks, other medicines, and activities should be avoided while taking this medication?
    • What are the side effects and what should be done if they occur?
    • What do I do if a dose is missed?
    • Is there any written information available about this medication?
    • Are there other medications that might be appropriate? If so, why do you prefer the one you have chosen?
    • How do you monitor medications and what symptoms indicate that they should be raised, lowered, or changed?
    All medications should be taken as directed. Most medications for mental illnesses do not work when taken irregularly, and extra doses can cause severe, sometimes dangerous side effects. Many psychiatric medications begin to have a beneficial effect only after they have been taken for several weeks.

    If a medication is prescribed to me and I begin to feel better after taking it is it okay to stop taking it?

    It is not uncommon for people to stop taking their medication when they feel their symptoms have become controlled. Others may choose to stop their medication because of side effects. A person may not realize that most side effects can be effectively managed. While it may seem reasonable to stop taking the medication, the problem is that at least 50% of the time the symptoms come back. If you or your child are taking medication, it is very important that you work together with your doctor before making decisions about any changes in your treatment.

    Another problem with stopping medication, especially if you stop it abruptly, is that you may develop withdrawal symptoms that can be very unpleasant. If you and your doctor feel a trial off your medicine is a good idea, it is necessary to slowly decrease the dosage of medications so that these symptoms don’t occur.

    It is important that your doctor and pharmacist work together to make sure your medications are working safely and effectively. You should talk with them about how you are doing and whenever there are side effects that might make you want to stop your treatment.

    Where can I go for help?

    Where you go for help will depend on the nature of the problem and/or symptoms and what best fits you. Often, the best place to start is by talking with someone you trust about your concerns. Ask for referrals and recommendations. These may come through friends, family, clergy, health care providers, or other professionals whom you know and trust.

    There are people and places all over the state of Nebraska available to talk, to listen, and to help. For additional information and resources please visit our finding help section of the website.
  • How do I find a local support group?
  • Many people find peer support a helpful tool that can aid in their recovery. There are a variety of organizations that offer support groups for consumers, their family members, and friends. Some support groups are peer led while others may be led by a mental health professional.

  • Do you have a question not listed above? E-mail us.

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