Have you ever felt nervous about giving a speech in public or anxious about meeting a new group of people? It’s easy to wonder whether these symptoms are signs of a more serious mental health disorder, or a run-of-the-mill case of the nerves. The truth is, the differences can be hard to spot, and sometimes that answers are different for different people.
However, there are some great general guidelines and things to know when it comes to managing mental health and mental health disorders.
What is mental health?
Mental health is the overall wellness of how you think, regulate your feelings and behave. Everyone has ups and downs with mental health, however, sometimes a significant disturbance can lead to a deeper issue that needs more attention.
What is a mental disorder?
When patterns or changes in thinking, feeling or behavior cause distress or disrupt a person’s ability to function, a mental disorder may be present. Mental health disorders can affect how well you:
- Maintain personal or family relationships
- Function in social settings
- Perform at work or school
- Learn at a level expected for your age and intelligence
- Participate in other important activities
It’s important to note that there is no standard measure across cultures to determine whether a behavior is normal or part of a more serious disorder. Cultural norms and societal expectations are different everywhere, and so is how each culture defines mental health disorders. What might be normal in one society may be a cause for concern in another.
How are mental health disorders defined?
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is a guide published by the American Psychiatric Association that explains the signs and symptoms of several hundred mental health conditions, including anxiety, depression, eating disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder and schizophrenia.
The DSM provides criteria for making a diagnosis based on the nature, duration and impact of signs and symptoms. It also describes the typical course of the disorder, risk factors and common co-existing conditions.
Another commonly used diagnostic guideline is the International Classification of Diseases (ICD) from the World Health Organization. Health insurance companies use the diagnostic coding system of the DSM and ICD in determining coverage and benefits and to reimburse mental health professionals.
How do mental health professionals diagnose disorders?
Psychiatrists, psychologists, clinical social workers or other mental health professionals can help diagnose the presence of a mental health condition. You can also talk to your primary care doctor to help start a diagnostic assessment or get a referral to a mental health specialist.
A diagnosis may be based on the following:
- A medical history of physical illness or mental health disorders in you or in your family
- A complete physical to identify or rule out a condition that may be causing symptoms
- Questions about your current concerns or why you’re seeking help
- Questions about how recent events or changes in your life — trauma, relationships, work, death of a friend or relative — have affected how you think, feel or behave
- Questionnaires or other formal tests that ask for your feedback on how you think, feel or behave in typical situations
- Questions about past and current alcohol and drug use
- A history of trauma, abuse, family crises or other major life events
- Questions about past or current thoughts about violence against yourself or others
- Questionnaires or interviews completed by someone who knows you well, such as a parent or spouse
When is it time to seek help?
Every mental health condition is different. However, in general, it might be a good idea to seek professional help if you experience:
- Marked changes in personality, eating or sleeping patterns
- An inability to cope with problems or daily activities
- Feeling of disconnection or withdrawal from normal activities
- Unusual or “magical” thinking
- Excessive anxiety
- Prolonged sadness, depression or apathy
- Thoughts or statements about suicide or harming others
- Substance misuse
- Extreme mood swings
- Excessive anger, hostility or violent behavior
When in doubt, seek help
It’s not uncommon for people who have mental health disorders to consider their signs and symptoms a normal part of life, or avoid treatment due to stigmatization. However, ignoring these types of issues won’t help you overcome them in the long run. Always remember: if you’re concerned about your mental health, don’t hesitate to seek advice.
You can start the process by consulting your primary care doctor or making an appointment with a psychiatrist, psychologist or other mental health professional. Be sure to choose a professional who is familiar with your culture and understands the cultural and social context that’s relevant to your experiences and life story.
Everyone’s journey is different, but with appropriate support you can identify mental health conditions and receive appropriate treatments such as medications, counseling, or both.