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What Is Mental Illness, The Signs, And What You Can Do About It?

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End mental health stigma

What is mental illness?

A mental illness is a disease that causes mild to severe disturbances in thought and/or behaviour, resulting in an inability to cope with life’s ordinary demands and routines.

There are more than 200 classified forms of mental illness. 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.

Why people have mental health issues

Mental health problems may be related to excessive stress due to a particular situation or series of events. As with cancer, diabetes and heart disease, mental illnesses are often physical as well as emotional and psychological.

Mental illnesses may be caused by a reaction to environmental stresses, genetic factors, biochemical imbalances, or a combination of these. With proper care and treatment, many individuals learn to cope with or recover from a mental illness or emotional disorder.

Don’t keep mental illness to yourself, there is power in sharing.

Reports from World Health

According to a 2016 report on mental health, the disorders are not uncommon, and the global burden of mental health disorders is projected to reach 15% by the year 2020.

Still from the report; “In Nigeria, an estimated 20%–30% of our population is believed to suffer from mental disorders. This is a very significant number considering Nigeria has an estimated population of over 200 million.
Unfortunately, the attention given to mental health disorders in Nigeria is at best, fleeting; the level of awareness of the Nigerian public on mental health issues is also understandably poor, and the misconceptions regarding mental health have continued to flourish”.

According to the World Health Organization on mental health;

Half of all mental illness begins by the age of 14, but most cases go undetected and untreated. In terms of the burden of the disease among adolescents, depression is the third leading cause. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among 15-29-year-olds. Harmful use of alcohol and illicit drugs among adolescents is a major issue in many countries and can lead to risky behaviours such as unsafe sex or dangerous driving. Eating disorders are also of concern.

Prevention begins with a better understanding

Prevention begins with being aware of and understanding the early warning signs and symptoms of mental illness. Parents and teachers can help build life skills of children and adolescents to help them cope with everyday challenges at home and at school.

Psychosocial support can be provided in schools and other community settings and of course training for health workers to enable them to detect and manage mental health disorders can be put in place, improved or expanded.

Investment by governments and the involvement of the social, health and education sectors in comprehensive, integrated, evidence-based programmes for the mental health of young people is essential.

This investment should be linked to programmes to raise awareness among adolescents and young adults of ways to look after their mental health and to help peers, parents and teachers know how to support their friends, children and students.

This is the focus of this year’s World Mental Health Day; says WHO.

What are the signs and how to know them?

These are the following signs that your loved one or anyone having mental health issues may want to speak to a medical or mental health professional about.

It is especially important to pay attention to sudden changes in thoughts and behaviours. Also keep in mind that the onset of several of the symptoms below, and not just anyone change, indicates a problem that should be assessed.

The symptoms below should not be due to recent substance use or another medical condition.

If you or someone you know is in crisis now, seek help immediately. Call- 0809111MANI to reach a 24-hour crisis centre or dial 911 for immediate assistance or by emailcontact@mentallyaware.org. You can also visit their websites for more information – mentallyaware.org.

Friends and family members need to realize that their expectations are unlikely to match the progress of their loved ones that are dealing with mental illness

In Adults, Young Adults and Adolescents:

  • Confused thinking
  • Prolonged depression (sadness or irritability)
  • Feelings of extreme highs and lows
  • Excessive fears, worries and anxieties
  • Social withdrawal
  • Dramatic changes in eating or sleeping habits
  • Strong feelings of anger
  • Strange thoughts (delusions)
  • Seeing or hearing things that aren’t there (hallucinations)
  • Growing an inability to cope with daily problems and activities
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Numerous unexplained physical ailments
  • Substance use

In Older Children and Pre-Adolescents:

  • Substance use
  • Inability to cope with problems and daily activities
  • Changes in sleeping and/or eating habits
  • Excessive complaints of physical ailments
  • Changes in ability to manage responsibilities – at home and/or at school
  • Defiance of authority, truancy, theft, and/or vandalism
  • Intense fear
  • Prolonged negative mood, often accompanied by poor appetite or thoughts of death
  • Frequent outbursts of anger

In Younger Children:

  • Changes in school performance
  • Poor grades despite strong efforts
  • Changes in sleeping and/or eating habits
  • Excessive worry or anxiety (i.e. refusing to go to bed or school)
  • Hyperactivity
  • Persistent nightmares
  • Persistent disobedience or aggression
  • Frequent temper tantrums

What you can about it

Accept your feelings
Despite the different symptoms and types of mental illnesses, many families who have a loved one with mental illness, share similar experiences.

You may find yourself denying the warning signs, worrying what other people will think because of the stigma, or wondering what caused your loved one to become ill. Accept that these feelings are normal and common among families going through similar situations.

Find out all you can about your loved one’s illness by reading and talking with mental health professionals. Share what you have learned with others.

Handling unusual behaviour

The outward signs of a mental illness are often behavioural. A person may be extremely quiet or withdrawn.  Conversely, he or she may burst into tears, have great anxiety or have outbursts of anger.

Even after treatment has started, some individuals with a mental illness can exhibit anti-social behaviours. When in public, these behaviours can be disruptive and difficult to accept.

The next time you and your family member visit your doctor or mental health professional, discuss these behaviours and develop a strategy for coping.

Your family member’s behaviour may be as dismaying to them as it is to you. Ask questions, listen with an open mind and be there to support them.

Establishing a support network

Whenever possible, seek support from friends and family members. If you feel you cannot discuss your situation with friends or other family members, find a self-help or support group.

These groups provide an opportunity for you to talk to other people who are experiencing the same type of problems.  They can listen and offer valuable advice.

Seeking counselling

Therapy can be beneficial for both the individual with mental illness and other family members.  A mental health professional can suggest ways to cope with and better understand your loved one’s illness.

When looking for a therapist, be patient and talk to a few professionals so you can choose the person that is right for you and your family.  It may take time until you are comfortable, but in the long run, you will be glad you sought help.

Taking time out

It is common for the person with the mental illness to become the focus of family life.  When this happens, other members of the family may feel ignored or resentful. Some may find it difficult to pursue their own interests.

If you are the caregiver, you need some time for yourself. Schedule time away to prevent becoming frustrated or angry.

If you schedule time for yourself it will help you to keep things in perspective and you may have more patience and compassion for coping or helping your loved one.

Being physically and emotionally healthy helps you to help others.

“Many families who have a loved one with mental illness share similar experiences”


It is important to remember that there is hope for recovery and that with treatment many people with mental illness return to a productive and fulfilling life.

Sources: mentalhealthamerica.net and World Health Organization

The Spice Network @2018
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