Breaking the Stigma on Mental Health: Common Conditions

May 12, 2018 by Cheryl Proska in For Individuals, For Professionals, Intellectual Disability, Mental Illness

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. In observance, IVA is producing a three-part blog series, entitled “Breaking the Stigma on Mental Health,” to help end social discrimination against mental illness. This is part one of the series. Click here to read the series introduction.

Mental illnesses are among the most common health conditions in the United States. Although accurate figures can be difficult to obtain, nearly 44.7 million people are affected per year, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reporting more than 50% will be diagnosed with a mental illness or disorder at some point in their lifetime.

Mental Health vs. Mental Illness

Although they sound interchangeable, these two phrases are not the same. Mental health refers to a person’s emotional, psychological and social well-being; this can change over time depending on many factors. Mental illness is a “medical condition that affects a person’s thinking, feeling mood or behavior; such conditions may be occasional or long-lasting (chronic) and affect someone’s ability to relate to others and function every day.” Many people suffer from more than one mental disorder at a given time, known as co-occurrence.

Drawing the line

It’s typical to feel sad, angry, frustrated, confused or have a bad day – but how can we tell if these feelings are indicative of a more serious problem? To help clinicians and researchers clearly distinguish mental illness from periods of poor mental health, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) created and published the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). Each disorder is given a classification; set of diagnostic criteria or symptoms; and detailed description, including prevalence, risk factors, gender- and culture-related diagnostic issues, associated diagnoses, and development/progression details. The most recent edition of the DSM recognizes over 290 mental illnesses.

Common Conditions

Here are some of the most common categories of disorders described in the DSM-5:


Neurodevelopmental Disorders

Neurodevelopmental disorders typically manifest early in development, often before the child enters grade school, and frequently co-occur. They include:

Intellectual Disability Formerly referred to as mental retardation, this chronic condition is characterized by significant limitation in intellectual functioning and adaptive behavior. People with intellectual disabilities often have difficulties in three core domains: social (recognizing social ques, expressing empathy, social judgement, etc.), conceptual (language, reading, writing, math, reasoning, memory), and practical or self-management (personal care, job responsibilities, money management, recreation, etc.). These symptoms fall on a continuum, ranging from mild to moderate to severe. Limitations are determined through standardized intelligence testing (IQ tests), as well as clinical assessment.

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) – ASD is an umbrella diagnosis that includes conditions such as Asperger’s disorder, Autism, Childhood Disintegrative disorder, and Pervasive Developmental Disorder (Not Otherwise Specified). The defining characteristic of ASD is communication deficits, such as misreading nonverbal interactions or responding inappropriately in conversations. They are often overly dependent on routine and highly sensitive to changes in their environment. Symptoms of people with ASD fall on a continuum, ranging from mind to moderate to severe.

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) – Affecting nearly 8.7% children in the U.S., ADHD is one of the most common mental disorders among adolescents. However, it’s not just limited to kids — an estimated 4.4% of adults are also affected. Flagship symptoms of ADHD include inattention (not being able to focus), hyperactivity (excess movement) and impulsivity (acting or speaking in the moment without thought). Depending on how symptoms present, it can be diagnosed as one of three types: inattentive type, hyperactive/impulsive type, or combined type.


Bipolar & Related Disorders

Bipolar (previously called manic-depressive illness) and related disorders affect 6.1 million Americans (2.6%). They are characterized by extreme shifts in mood, activity, energy levels and the ability to carry out day-to-day tasks. These moods range often include:

Manic Episodes – Elevated mood, inflated self-esteem, decreased need for sleep, racing thoughts, difficulty maintaining attention, increase in goal-directed activity, and excessive involvement in pleasurable activities; to the point it interferes with or significantly impacts daily function.

Depressive Episodes – Overwhelming feelings of sadness, isolation, and despair; to the point it interferes with or significantly impacts daily function.

Hypomanic Episodes – Similar to feelings of mania — elevated mood, inflated self-esteem, decreased need for sleep, etc, difficulty maintaining attention, excessive involvement in pleasurable activities, increase in goal-directed activity — except they do not interfere or significantly impact daily function.


Anxiety Disorders

Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness, affecting 42 million Americans (18.1%). They are characterized by unexplainable, excessive and persistent feelings of worry, fear, anxiety and other related behaviors, to the point that it interferes with or significantly impacts daily function. These can include:

Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) – GAD is excessive, uncontrollable worry about everyday events. The condition typically starts with one aspect of life, then gradually evolves overtime to affect life as a whole. People with GAD often recognize their reactions are over the top, but believe panic is the only way to prevent bad things from happening. Since unknown situations trigger GAD symptoms, those with the disorder tend to control or predict every possible outcome or situation.

Social Anxiety Disorder – Also know as social phobia, this condition is characterized by an irrational fear of being judged or rejected. Those with social anxiety disorder show physical signs of discomfort — such as poor eye contact, stumbled speech, or blushing — when placed in large or social situations. In extreme situations, social anxiety can cause vomiting, increased heart rate, or full-blown panic attacks.


Feeding & Eating Disorders

Eating disorders are characterized by an obsession with food, body image, and/or weight. Although typically seen in women (1.6% in the U.S.), these conditions are prevalent in 0.8% of men. Disorders in this category include:

Anorexia NervosaAnorexia has the highest mortality rate of any mental disorder. People who suffer from this condition see themselves as morbidly obese, regardless of their actual size. Their intense fear of gaining weight causes them to severely restrict their food intake. Symptoms often include excessive weight monitoring, extreme thinness, muscle loss, lethargy, slowed heart rate and unhealthily restrictive dieting.

Bulimia Nervosa – Bulimia is characterized by periods of excessive, uncontrollable eating, followed directly by an episode of forced vomiting or excessive use of laxatives, known as purging. This cycle of behavior is exhibited for several reasons — to maintain a desired weight without depriving the body of food, or to relieve an irrational feeling of guilt is associated with eating. Unlike some eating disorders, people with bulimia tend to be average or healthy weight. However, continuous purging can lead to a chronically inflamed throat, worn tooth enamel, and severe acid reflux disorders.

Binge-Eating Disorder – This disorder is characterized by excessive, uncontrollable eating due to lack of control around food. As a result, many people living with this condition are overweight or obese. Binge-eating disorders are the most common eating disorder in the United States.


Disruptive, Impulse-Control, & Conduct Disorders

10% of youth have conduct disorders. This group of disorders involve an inability to control emotions and behaviors, resulting in harm to oneself or others. The most common disorders in this group are:

Conduct Disorder – This is commonly diagnosed in children and adolescents under the age of 18. Textbook behavior includes excessive physical aggression, conflict with authority figures, destruction of property and general defiance.

Kleptomania – Kleptomania is defined as an uncontrollable impulse to steal. People living with this condition often take things they don’t even need or have little to no monetary value.

Pyromania – Pyromania is characterized by an abnormal attraction or fascination with fire. This disorder can quickly become a safety hazard not only the diagnosed individual, but also those around them.


Substance-Related & Addictive Disorders

Substance abuse disorders affect over 20 million Americans — 50.5% of which have a co-occurring mental illness. Due to a drastic rise in substance-related deaths, this group of disorders has been deemed a national health crisis. Common disorders include:

Alcohol-related Disorders – Alcohol is the most widely used, and overused, substance in the United States. Alcohol-related disorders occur when a person loses control over their alcohol consumption, becomes compulsive with their alcohol consumption, or enters a negative state when not under the effects of alcohol.

Stimulant Use Disorders – One of the newest additions to this category, stimulant use disorders are characterized by a pattern of problematic use of amphetamines, meth, cocaine, or other related substances. Improper use can include, but is not limited to, recreational purposes, coping mechanisms, or weight loss tactics.

Gambling Disorder – This disorder refers to an inability to resist the urge to gamble. A compulsion to gambling can result in serious emotional and financial distraught. Often times people with a gambling disorder are unaware or in denial of their problem.


Personality Disorders

 Personality disorders are rigid long-term patterns of behavior or thought, often established before or during adolescence, that impact personal relationship and daily living. These can include:

Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) – People with BPD have trouble regulating their emotions. Key features include instability in interpersonal relationships, self-image, and impulse control. BPD is most common in women.

Schizotypal Personality Disorder – Schizotypal Personality Disorder is characterized by odd or eccentric behavior. Distorted or “magical” thinking, discomfort in social situations, and feelings of paranoia are among the common symptoms.


Check out Part 2: Warning Signs & Coping Skills


For immediate access to resources, or to learn how you can get involved with breaking the stigma of mental health, visit:

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