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What is mental illness?
Mental illnesses are the various conditions characterized by impairment of an individual's normal cognitive (thought), emotional, or behavioral functioning. There are many different mental illnesses known today. Our mental health (sometimes referred to as behavioral health) is as important to our day to day functioning and quality of life as our physical health. Mental illness is sometimes called emotional illness, mental disease, or mental disorder.

Today, we know that mental and physical health are similar. Both of them have disorders or illnesses with specific causes, symptoms, and treatments. It is important to understand what mental illness is not: it is not a personal or moral weakness.

What causes mental illness?
Mental illnesses, like other illnesses, have a variety of causes. The exact cause of most mental illnesses is not known, but experts agree that in most cases, it is a combination of factors. These factors include genetics, biology/brain chemistry, trauma and environmental stress.

Genetics – Most mental illnesses tend to run in families. This does not mean that if someone in your family has a mental illness you will develop one, too. It simply means that there is a likelihood that a parent could pass a mental illness on to a child. Again, this just means the chances are greater, not that the illness will be passed for certain.
Biology – Some mental illnesses are now linked to chemicals in the brain called neurotransmitters. These help the nerves in the brain communicate with one another. When these chemical are out of balance or absent, nerves cannot communicate properly with each other and messages may get lost or changed as they move through the brain. This is what causes symptoms. Injuries to or defects of the brain have also been connected to some mental illnesses.
Trauma – Psychological trauma can trigger some mental illnesses. This trauma can include severe emotional, physical or sexual abuse or severe grief, especially when this happens earlier in life.
Environmental Stress – For people that are already at risk for mental illness, extreme stress in their environment or lives can bring on the symptoms of a mental illness.

What are the symptoms of mental illness?
Mental illnesses produce different symptoms in different people, but some are fairly common. How strong these symptoms are also varies from person to person. In general, these symptoms could be signs of a mental illness. No information on this site is meant to substitute for a consultation with a mental health professional. If you believe you or someone you care about may be experiencing a mental illness, please consult a professional found in our Finding Help and Resources section.

Symptoms of mental illness may include:
  • Confused thinking
  • Long-lasting sadness or irritability
  • Extreme highs and lows in mood
  • Excessive fear, worrying or anxiety
  • Social withdrawal
  • Dramatic changes in eating or sleeping habits
  • Strong feelings of anger
  • Delusions or hallucinations (seeing or hearing things that are not really there)
  • Increasing inability to cope with daily problems and activities
  • Thoughts of suicide
  • Denial of obvious problems
  • Many unexplained physical problems
  • Abuse of drugs and/or alcohol
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