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Is Mental Illness Chronic?

Mental illness is complicated, and different types of mental diseases require different treatments. People with various mental illnesses often wonder if they will ever feel better or if their symptoms will ever resolve. With so many mental illnesses being treated long-term, there is an obvious question: is mental illness chronic? That's a tricky question to answer, so let's talk about it.

Many types of mental illnesses are chronic. Other times, the symptoms of mental illnesses are only present for short amounts of time, making them acute rather than chronic. And further, some types of mental illnesses might not stick around your whole life, even if they are present for a while. For example, you might be depressed, but that doesn't mean you always will be. With the right type of help and treatment, people can work to manage their symptoms to a point where they don't interfere as much with everyday life.

While not everyone has a mental illness, mental health is vital to the well-being of everyone. So, even if you are not coping with a chronic condition, you can always be working toward bettering your mental health. Therefore, it is critical to note a distinct difference between mental health and mental illness.

The difference between mental health and mental illness

It's easy to interchangeably use the terms "mental illness" and "mental health." After all, they both have to do with our minds and our emotions and how they connect to our well-being. But they are two different things, and we must make this distinction.

What is mental health? offers the following definition of mental health:

Mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make choices.

So, you can continually improve your mental health, even if you don't have a mental illness. You can work towards developing healthy habits and be proactive in promoting good mental health. And just because you have declines in your mental health doesn't mean that you are at a point of having a medical diagnosis of a mental illness.

What is mental illness?

One of the major differences between mental health and mental illness is how much it interferes with your day-to-day life (National Health Service UK, 2022).

The National Institute of Mental Health distinguishes between any type of mental illness and serious mental illness. Mental illness is any "mental, behavioral, or emotional disorder." The impact of mental illness can range from mild to severe.

In contrast, the NIH defines serious mental illness as a

Mental, behavioral, or emotional disorder resulting in serious functional impairment, which substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities.

A medical professional with appropriate credentials will need to diagnose you with a mental illness. You will talk with your doctor about the symptoms you have been experiencing. Your doctor may rule out physical causes for your symptoms and conduct a psychological evaluation. Or your doctor might refer you to a specialist for diagnosis (Mayo Clinic, 2019).

One tool that doctors use is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. The most recent version of this manual is the DSM-5, and it provides the diagnostic criteria for different mental illnesses.

Understanding different types of mental illnesses

There are a variety of mental illnesses, and each impacts people differently. And the severity of symptoms will vary from person to person as well. A few common types of mental illness categories include the following:

  • Bipolar disorders: Bipolar disorders involve drastic changes in mood and behavior followed by periods of depression. The severity of symptoms will vary from person to person.

  • Schizophrenia disorders: People with schizophrenia can experience hallucinations and detachment from what is really happening around them.

  • Depressive disorders: Depression involves declines in happiness and can interfere with your ability to go about your day-to-day life.

  • Anxiety disorders: Anxiety disorders involve excessive worry and can interfere with your ability to cope with everyday stressors and navigate life challenges.

  • Eating disorders: These disorders impact your physical health but are also related to your thought patterns. For example, people with anorexia might believe that they are fat and thus refuse to eat.

  • Neurodevelopmental disorders: These are more common in children and include disorders like autism and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

(Mayo Clinic, 2019)

Getting the right help

If you suspect you have a mental disorder, getting the help you need is critical. If left unchecked, your condition can worsen and cause more problems in your day-to-day life.

It can start with a simple conversation with your primary care provider. Based on your symptoms, your doctor can recommend the kind of help you may need. For example, they might recommend the use of certain medications or therapy.

Therapists and counselors can help you think through your thoughts and emotions. They can also help you reframe how you think about specific problems and help you plan how you deal with future issues.

Your doctor and mental health experts might also recommend specific health measures to improve your overall well-being, such as improving your diet and implementing more exercise into your daily routine.

Mental health experts also recognize that support from peers can be helpful when it comes to mental illnesses. You can join support groups of people experiencing the same mental illness as you. Getting this sort of support helps you understand that you aren't alone in what you are thinking, feeling, and experiencing (Mayo Clinic, 2019; Mental Health America, 2020)

Continuing the use of medication

Sometimes medication is part of the treatment regimen for mental illness. For example, doctors may use medications to help regulate schizophrenia or bipolar disorder symptoms. With these sorts of medications, people might need to remain on them for life to control their symptoms adequately.

Other times, you might only be on medications for a certain amount of time. As your symptoms, thought patterns, and even your situation improve, you might be able to stop taking medication.

It is important to always be in close contact with medical professionals whenever you are considering going off medication. It can be dangerous to simply stop taking certain medications.

Suppose you are having problems with the side effects of your medication. In that case, your doctor may be able to help you switch over to a similar drug that has fewer side effects.

If you want to stop taking a medication, your health care provider can help you do this safely.

For example, some people take anti-depressant medications to help manage depression symptoms. People need to come off these medications slowly by reducing the dose and frequency over a certain period.

Reducing your symptoms

Your treatment plan for mental illness will be individualized. Only you can find what works for you. As you seek the advice of specialists, you will find out what works and what doesn't. Over time and with consistent hard work, your symptoms can often improve.

As your symptoms improve, you may be able to reduce portions of your treatment regimen. For example, you might reduce the number of times you meet with your therapist or the dose of medication you need to manage your symptoms.

Mental Health America likes to distinguish between the curing and recovery of mental illness. While no mental illness has a "cure," mental illness is treatable, and it is possible in cases to get to a point where your symptoms are gone.

In this way, mental illnesses are similar to other chronic health conditions like high blood pressure. You might be able to reduce your blood pressure through medication, diet, and exercise to where it comes back down into a healthy range. But there is always the possibility that the high blood pressure could come back if you shift back into old lifestyle choices or stop taking medication too soon.

Moving forward

While some mental disorders may always require treatment, others may reach a point where you don't need to attend regular counseling or take certain medications. In cases like this, your symptoms are not interfering with your day-to-day activities, and you can actively move forward with life.

It is possible to have relapses, where your symptoms come back after being gone for a while. This is why it is critical to keep in contact with medical professionals as needed and follow up when you notice symptoms starting to come back.

So, take a deep breath, work towards better mental health, and know that the symptoms of your mental illness can improve with the right kind of help.


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