Getting Started

The American Psychiatric Association reports that 50 percent of mental illness cases begin by age 14, and three-fourths begin by age 24. Meanwhile, the World Health Organization reports that 15 percent of adults over the age of 60 have a mental disorder. These facts reiterate how prevalent mental health concerns are at all ages. As with any health concerns, doing the adequate research to better understand treatment options can help you or a loved one make the best decisions for your healthcare needs. This early part of the process can often be difficult to navigate if you are not sure of what kind of treatment you are looking for. Luckily, your primary care doctor can be a good introduction to point you in the right direction of psychologists, psychiatrists and/or other behavioral health specialists who can provide you the treatment and services that can best help you. Paying attention to your mental health is not unlike the preventive care we seek when consulting our primary care doctors with physical ailments. They serve to identify and prevent illnesses as early as possible, and consulting them is a proactive step in taking charge of both your mental and physical health.

Online Assessment Tools

You may also consider online assessment tools provided by your healthcare provider or other mental health websites. It is imperative, however, to avoid self-diagnosis, and ineffective or non-definitive online assessment tools. Some sites provide screening assessments that are specific to mental illnesses, while some are more general. Below are some examples of assessment tools online that can be used to get you started in the process of evaluating your mental health, in conjunction with the advice of a health professional:

It is important to reiterate that these online tools do not, and should not, replace the professional consultation and potential diagnosis by a mental health professional, but can merely function as a starting point at which you can begin reflecting on your mental health.

Common Mental Health Diagnoses

Below are some common mental illness diagnoses and a brief explanation of their symptoms:

Anxiety Disorders:
It is a common and normal reaction to have feelings of anxiety to stressful situations. In fact, the body reacts to stress in certain ways in order for you to become mentally aware of the needs of your body and mind. Anxiety disorders, as explained by the American Psychiatric Association, are not the same as normal feelings of nervousness and anxiousness; instead, they tend to be “excessive worries that don’t go away even in the absence of a stressor,” and are the most common of all mental disorders. It is estimated that over 30 percent of adults are affected by anxiety disorders at some point in their life, and may cause people to avoid situations that can worsen or trigger their symptoms, often impacting their personal relationships, school, and job performance. There are several types of anxiety disorders and each have varying symptoms.

Attention Deficit Hyper-Activity Disorder (ADHD):
ADHD is characterized by symptoms such as inability to pay attention or keep focus, hyperactivity (involving excess movement not fitting to the setting), and impulsivity. While difficulty remaining still and having a limited attention span can be common in children, children with ADHD display markedly greater hyperactivity and/or inattention. Adults diagnosed with ADHD may not have known they have a disorder previously, but evaluation and diagnosis often involves looking at current and past symptoms. The American Psychiatric Association reports that about 8.4 percent of children and 2.5 percent of adults have ADHD, and can be diagnosed as three types: inattentive type, hyperactive/impulsive type, or combined type. Often this diagnosis is based on symptoms observed over the past six months.

Bipolar Disorders: 
Individuals diagnosed with bipolar or related disorders often display atypical, dramatic mood swings, and experience periods of intense emotional states. These extreme emotional states are known as ‘mood episodes.’ One type of diagnosis is Bipolar I Disorder, which involves having experienced at least one ‘manic episode,’ a period of abnormally elevated energy or irritability and increased activity that substantially impairs functioning. In between mood episodes there are often still periods of normal moods. Bipolar II Disorder is diagnosed when there has been at least one major depressive episode (involving the opposite, extreme end of a manic episode with intense feelings of sadness, despair and hopelessness) and a ‘hypomanic episode’ (similar to a manic episode, but with symptoms not severe enough to impair functioning). Bipolar I and II Disorder diagnoses make up about 2.6 percent of the adult U.S. population and 11.2 percent for children ages 13 to 18. A third diagnosis, cyclothymic disorder, is a mood disorder that causes emotional ups and downs that are relatively mild compared to Bipolar I or Bipolar II Disorder.

Eating Disorders (ED):
Individuals diagnosed with an eating disorder are often extremely concerned with their body weight and eating behaviors, usually critical to a point of having an intense fear of gaining weight. Anorexia nervosa is an ED diagnosed when patients weigh at least 15 percent less than the normal healthy weight expected for their height, and characterized by obsessing over their eating habits by limiting meals and food intake, repeatedly checking their body weight, or purging by means of vomiting, laxatives, and diuretics. Bulimia nervosa is an ED diagnosis for those who may not be as underweight as those with anorexia, but their eating habits involve frequent binge eating of large amounts of food in a short amount of time, with their fear of weight gain causing them to purge by vomiting or using a laxative. Binge eating disorder is a third type of ED also involving eating large amounts of food in a brief period and feeling like they cannot control themselves. Unlike bulimia, those with binge eating disorder do not attempt to purge their food. ED are often accompanied by other mental health diagnoses such as anxiety disorders and Substance Use Disorders.

Depression/Major Depressive Disorder (MDD):
Affecting one in six (16.6 percent) people at some time in their lives, depression is one of the more common mental health diagnoses, often first appearing during the late teens to mid-20s. One of the most common myths about depression is that it just means “being sad.” While life experiences such as the loss of a loved one or ending of a relationship may trigger similar feelings found in depression, having depression often involves decreased mood and/or loss of interest, feelings of worthlessness, and in some cases, thoughts of suicide or self-harm may be present. These thoughts of self-harm may require immediate, emergency attention – connecting with a skilled, confidential counselor at a crisis center, or calling 1-800-272-TALK (8255) available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, can help if you or someone you know is having self-harm or suicidal thoughts. Other symptoms of depression include significant weight loss or gain, insomnia or hypersomnia, restlessness, and lethargy. All symptoms must be present for at least two weeks and cause a significant impairment in daily functioning.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD):
Often diagnosed in those who have experienced or witnessed some form of trauma, a natural disaster, war/combat, or violent personal assault, PTSD can affect any person of any age, race, nationality, or gender. An estimated 7.7 million Americans could be diagnosed with PTSD, and includes symptoms such as flashbacks or nightmares, re-experiencing symptoms from an event, and being hyper-aroused or easily startled, thus impairing daily activities. These intrusive symptoms and diagnosis of PTSD must involve previous exposure to an upsetting or traumatizing event, even though the exposure could be indirect – such as an individual learning about the violent or sudden death of a loved one, or witnessing a car accident.

Schizophrenia is considered a  serious mental illness (SMI) and chronic brain disorder affecting 1 percent of the population, and is often described as a “thought disorder” due to symptoms that include hallucinations, delusions, disorganized thinking and motor behavior, and diminished emotional expression. Not receiving adequate treatment, incorrectly taking or refusal of medications, and use of alcohol or illicit drugs can increase the severity of these symptoms. Onset of symptoms usually occur from age 16 to 30, and genetic predisposition for psychosis does correlate to a risk for developing the disease, as well as physiological factors such as pregnancy and birth complications, and environmental factors. This chronic brain disorder currently has no cure, but research has produced newer and safer treatment options that show improvement in individuals over time.

Substance Use Disorder (SUD)/Addiction:
SUD is a catch-all name for the various psychoactive substances which, with recurrent use, such as of alcohol and/or drugs, causes functionally and clinically significant impairments. The most common substance use disorders are related to alcohol, tobacco, cannabis (marijuana), stimulants, and opioids. SUD is often diagnosed in varying degrees of mild, moderate, or severe, with addiction being severe SUD. This complex disease involves compulsive substance use and those with addiction develop an intense focus on using a certain substance(s), causing dangerous changes to brain chemistry and functioning. With addiction, individuals eventually need more amounts of the substance or drug in order to feel the desired effects. SUDs vary in their exact symptoms and effects, especially with use over time, and many people experience mental health conditions alongside SUD, either potentially triggering or exacerbating the other. Recognition of SUD or addiction is the first step in recovery, and further treatment will vary depending on the individual.