This page contains brief summaries of some of the most common mental health conditions. For details of external organisations providing support, click on the link.
Most people occasionally feel depressed but can usually relate it to an event in their lives and find a way of relieving it. But when someone becomes severely depressed, the feelings are much more powerful and unpleasant than the short episodes of unhappiness that everyone experiences from time to time. It can last for months, even years.
Life can become meaningless and despair can cloud all thoughts and actions, affecting a person's work and home life. A person may lose their self-confidence and become socially withdrawn. Despite feeling very tired, they may find that they are unable to get a proper night's sleep. They may experience physical symptoms, such as headaches. They may feel hopeless about things improving. In extreme cases, suicide may seem the only way out.
Sometimes people with depression may not realise how depressed they have become or may feel that it is their responsibility to 'snap out of it' and carry on with life. However, people with depression do not have a choice about the way they are feeling. They need understanding and to be encouraged to access the support they need.
Anxiety is a normal human feeling. Everyone experiences it when faced with a situation which they find threatening or difficult, but it is normally short term and manageable. However, if the feelings become very strong or last for an unreasonable amount of time, they can impact severely on an individual's life.
The symptoms of anxiety are varied. The anxious person may feel worried all the time, they may feel tired, unable to concentrate or irritable. If the anxiety is sudden and extreme, the person may experience a panic attack, the symptoms of which can include irregular heartbeats, chest pains, dizziness, faintness, sweating and muscle tension and pains. The person may confuse these symptoms with a serious physical illness such as a heart attack which increases their panic and makes the symptoms worse.
In some cases, the anxiety and fear may lead someone to develop a phobia and therefore they may avoid the situation they fear, for example social situations or flying in an aeroplane. This can have considerable limitations on a person's life which may itself result in depression.
People who experience anxiety will often not come forward for support because they are worried that people will think they are 'mad'. In fact, people with anxiety and fears very rarely have a serious mental illness and they should be encouraged to seek help rather than suffer in silence.
Eating disorders include obesity which is characterised by extreme over-eating; anorexia nervosa, a condition that leads to severe weight loss and bulimia nervosa, a condition that combines over-eating with vomiting or 'purging'. Anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa are both characterised by an extreme fear of being fat.
Nearly always, anorexia begins with everyday dieting with about a third of anorexia sufferers having been overweight before starting to diet. Unlike normal dieting, which stops when the desired weight is reached, in anorexia the dieting and the loss of weight continue until the sufferer is well below the normal limit for her age and height.
Unlike people with anorexia, the person with bulimia usually manages to keep her weight within normal limits. This is often achieved by binge eating followed by vomiting or taking laxatives.
For people with eating disorders, food dominates their lives, they may become depressed and withdrawn and the consequences of weight loss can have serious implications for their physical health.
Part of the problem is that sufferers often believe that there is nothing wrong with losing weight in the way that they do and as a result it is difficult to get them to accept help.
Schizophrenia is a condition that affects around one in every one hundred people at some point in their lives. There are many myths about schizophrenia but the outlook for people with schizophrenia as much better than it used to be.
The symptoms vary from person to person. Schizophrenia can cause someone to hallucinate (the most common hallucination being to hear voices from people who aren't there), to have delusions (a belief which may be uncommon or unknown in the person's culture or which the person believes very strongly without having any evidence to support it), to have muddled thinking (difficulty concentrating and disconnected ideas) or feelings of being controlled (feeling that someone is taking thoughts out of your mind or putting their thoughts into it).
Other symptoms may include a loss of energy and interest in life. It may be difficult for the individual to get excited or enthusiastic about anything and schizophrenia as a whole can make it very hard for someone to continue with their daily lives without support and treatment.
People with schizophrenia are often reluctant to disclose their symptoms to anyone. They may find that other people dismiss what they say or become frightened of what they are saying.
The reality is that many people with schizophrenia are able to live independently and more and more are able to function in their work, academic and personal lives with proper support and treatment.
Bi-polar Disorder will affect about one in every hundred adults at some point in their lives.
Most people have changes in mood, ranging from feeling low and depressed through to being calm and contented and excited or very happy. Bi-polar, however, involves extreme mood swings which significantly affect a person's ability to function, concentrate and participate in their normal personal relationships.
They may feel profoundly depressed for lengthy periods or so elated and excited that their judgement and behaviour are affected. Many people with the condition will have both high and low phases but some will only experience either depression or mania.
The symptoms of depression may include any of the symptoms experienced when someone is severely depressed, for example feelings of hopelessness and despair and loss of interest in life. On the other hand people experiencing a manic mood swing often feel better than they ever have done before and as a result usually do not realise that there is anything wrong. However, the increasing happiness can lead the person to become detached from day-to-day reality. They might seriously overestimate their capabilities so make decisions or act in ways that they deeply regret later. They may believe themselves to be someone they are not or they may feel so full of energy that they eventually exhaust themselves and others around them.
It is important that people with bi-polar get the support they need and are helped to recognise the warning signs in order that they can regain control over their lives.
This information has been adapted from the following sources:
The Royal College of Psychiatrists 'Help is at Hand Leaflet Series'.
The Health of the Nation (1994) 'Mental illness: what does it mean'