Defining Mental Illness

Mental health conditions are among the most common health conditions in the US. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), up to 50% of Americans will most likely experience mental illness in some form throughout their life. One of the most common forms of disability in the world is something many people have experienced: depression. Since stigma and fear may silence many from sharing their experience with mental illness, anyone can be close to someone struggling with mental illness without knowing it. However, treatment for a mental illness has become more accessible.

According to the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI), “A mental illness is a condition that affects a person’s thinking, feeling, behavior or mood.” Mental illnesses, otherwise known as mental health conditions, impact one’s ability to manage their life with significant difficulty. Mental health conditions can cause people to lose motivation, satisfaction, curiosity, interest, and even hope in life. This description applies to many in the US, with around 25% of Americans experiencing a mental condition each year, yet many do not seek help.

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What Prevents People From Seeking Treatment For Mental Illness?

Unfortunately, the stigma of experiencing a mental illness causes many to find the idea of seeking help terrifying. In some cultures, the concept of having a mental illness has been (and often still is) seen as being “weak” and “not strong enough,” leading others to find alternate ways of managing their mental illness. Other barriers to treatment include individuals having a lack of knowledge on available resources, a lack of confidence in mental health treatment, and affordability.

Why People Turn To Substances To Cope With Mental Illness

One of the most common ways people cope with mental illness is with substance use, such as alcohol, Nicotine, Opiates, Stimulants, and other substances. This unhealthy coping mechanism can result in the development of addiction. Individuals often use these substances to not think about their problems or feel the emotions that have caused them to be in a lot of pain. This act of seeking distraction or relief from problems or unpleasant emotions is called escapism – which often leads directly to experiencing addiction issues and mental illness, also known as a co-occurring disorder.

Common Mental Illnesses And Treatment Options


Depression is a well-known condition that impacts how one feels, thinks, and engages in activities of daily living (ADLs), including sleep, eating, hygiene, and other daily actions that can feel extremely difficult when depressed. Feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, and worthlessness can create a higher risk of self-harming behavior and a potential risk of suicide.

Treatment For Depression:

There are multiple types of treatments for depression, including medication management with a psychiatric professional, psychotherapy such as Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) with a behavioral health professional, and self-help support groups found in person or online. The gold standard of care combines medication management with psychotherapy for the most successful results. Additional options include Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT) and Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS), which has been clinically effective for treating severe depression.


Anxiety, like depression, is another well-known condition. Many refer to anxiety as “an invisible illness” since the effects are not often seen outwardly; however, it can cause significant emotional distress. Anxiety can be a healthy tool to help individuals predict warning signs of potential danger. However, for those who struggle with the mental condition of generalized anxiety disorder, each day could become a mammoth task just to perform basic actions others find little difficulty completing.

Treatment For Anxiety:

There are many forms of treatment for anxiety. Treatment options include medication management as well as psychotherapy. Some specialty therapies focused on anxiety reduction may include Exposure and Response Prevention therapy (ERP) and Mindfulness-Based CBT to help improve awareness of emotions without judging them.


Bipolar disorder is an often misunderstood condition that has been used to describe others in an unflattering light; however, when someone does have this condition, it causes serious impairments in their life. Bipolar disorders impact a person’s behaviors and ability to regulate their mood, which can result in what feels like a rollercoaster of emotions that range from highly depressed to feeling on top of the world. This “top of the world” feeling, also known as mania, can lead an individual to engage in potentially harmful behaviors.

Treatment For Bipolar Disorder:

Bipolar disorder is usually considered an organic brain chemistry issue, which is why primary treatment for this mental illness involves medication management with a psychiatric professional. Psychotherapy with a behavioral health professional who has training in this diagnosis can teach individuals how to safely manage mood regulation through therapeutic techniques, such as grounding exercises.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

The development of PTSD is often thought of in stereotypical ways, such as being involved in war zones or experiencing a sexual/physical assault or abuse. While those are what we call “big T” events for people who develop PTSD, many times, PTSD develops from what we call “small t” events. “Small t” events are not necessarily life-threatening, but these events disrupt our ability to cope regardless. PTSD is a serious condition that can impact a person’s well-being with symptoms of emotional numbness, high-risk behaviors, isolation, and abusing substances to manage symptoms.

Treatment For PTSD:

PTSD is a condition often treated with a combination of medication for symptom management and psychotherapy to explore and resolve the traumatic experiences. There are specialty therapies designed for this, including Eye Movement Desensitization and Repressing (EMDR), Accelerated Resolution Therapy (ART), and Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT). These therapies aim to reduce the emotional intensity of the experience and reorient the person to feel safe in the present moment.

Psychotic Disorders

Psychotic disorders are an umbrella term for severe persistent mental illness (SPMI) that usually requires ongoing treatment for the entirety of an individual’s life. Some examples of mental illness in this category include schizophrenia and schizoaffective condition. Most commonly, those who struggle with these mental illnesses tend to experience events in an altered reality, including hallucinations and paranoia. These experiences result in individuals with psychotic disorders having difficulty processing information.

Treatment For Psychotic Disorders:

Most psychotic disorders involve a brain chemistry issue, which is primarily treated with medication management through a psychiatric professional. Therapy can sometimes be beneficial for those with long-term psychotic issues. Additionally, individuals may need local community services, such as case management, to help them stay supported by their medical team.

Eating Disorders

This category is also an umbrella term for process behaviors, such as binging or purging, where individuals try to control an aspect of their lives. Anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorders are some of the most known forms of eating disorders. Another common eating disorder is pica, where an individual eats or attempts to eat items that are not considered food. Pica is more common in children aged 1 to 6.

Treatment For Eating Disorders:

Eating disorders often include other mental health illnesses, so treatment must address all needs in order to be effective. This treatment would include possible medication management to help stabilize symptoms and psychotherapy, such as CBT, to help address their beliefs around eating and how it impacts their behaviors.

Personality Disorders

Personality disorders are some of the most complex mental health conditions we are aware of, usually comprising multiple other mental health conditions as well. Personality disorders have many forms, including narcissistic, obsessive-compulsive, borderline, and antisocial personality disorders. Those who struggle with personality disorders often have strained relationships starting from early childhood, and unfortunately, there are no known “cures” for personality disorders.

Treatment For Personality Disorders:

While there are no “cures” for personality disorders, research shows that engaging in psychotherapy early on with clinical interventions can help individuals recognize their illness and make conscious changes in their relationships. Individuals with these conditions may benefit from a combination of medication management and therapy.

Substance Use Disorders (SUDs)

Addiction can take many forms, including SUDs involving alcohol, Opiates, Benzodiazepines, Stimulants like Cocaine or Methamphetamines, or even cough medicine. Addiction can also occur in behavioral processes, including eating, sex, gambling, gaming, and internet use. Common core concepts of addiction revolve around finding ways to feel in control of one’s thoughts and emotions, which continues to cycle until the individual is no longer in control.

Treatment For SUDs:

Addiction treatment has improved significantly within the last 30 years, including more focus on the brain anatomy of addiction. Treatment is often medically focused at the start to ensure an individual’s safety and then continues with medication management and psychotherapy, often including Motivational Interviewing, to help individuals find the motivation for long-term recovery.

When Should I Seek Treatment?

The time to seek treatment for a mental health illness is quite personal and individualized; however, most behavioral health professionals will answer “as soon as you can.” No one deserves to suffer in silence or feel that they are alone in their struggles. As a society, we would not want anyone to suffer from a medical condition, and this logic must apply to mental health needs just as much. The hardest step on the journey to recovery is the first one, but resources are available. Click here for more information on online therapy options.

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Travis Pantiel, LMHC, MCAP

Photo of Travis Pantiel, LMHC, MCAP
  • Travis Pantiel is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor and a National Board-Certified Counselor with specialized expertise in the co-occurring disorder treatment field.

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