What is Mental Illness?

Mental illness can be defined as the experiencing of severe and distressing psychological symptoms to the extent that normal functioning is seriously impaired, and some form of help is usually needed for recovery. Examples of such symptoms include anxiety, depressed mood, obsessional thinking, delusions and hallucinations. Help may take the form of counselling or psychotherapy, drug treatment and/or lifestyle change.

Professor Anthony Clare, psychiatrist and broadcaster defines mental illness as follows:

“A diagnosis of mental illness usually means in practice that:

a) A person is experiencing symptoms characteristically regarded as psychological, such as anxiety, depression, elation, hallucinations, delusions, obsessions, compulsions;

b) The symptoms are severe and disabling; that is to say, the individual is distressed by them, cannot function, and feels ‘unwell’. The layman’s term is ‘breakdown’ and it is a good one for it suggests that the individual’s normal ability to cope with stress or a setback has broken down, that he/she has lost the normal ability to ease tension, lift mood, regain control, cope;

c) The individual is so afflicted that he or she cannot ordinarily recover control without external help [be it by means of talking, listening and learning (psychotherapy, behaviour therapy), physical treatment, (drugs, ECT) and/or social interventions (attention to stresses at work, in the home, within marriage or relating to money, status, power)];

d) The ill health can be caused by genetic factors; by loss such as bereavement or unemployment or financial disaster; by catastrophic stress such as war, disasters like the Lockerbie air tragedy or the Stardust fire; by physical illness; or indeed, a combination of some or all of these factors.

e) Rarely is there a single cause of a psychiatric illness and rarely, too, a single treatment.”

Written by Mental Health Ireland 2007
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