A mental health condition, or mental illness, refers to a set of symptoms that have been identified by the mental health community. Mental health conditions are described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11), or by people with lived experience.
People with mental health conditions deal with changes in emotions, thinking, and/or behavior. For some, this means extreme and unexpected changes in mood – like feeling much more sad or worried than usual. For others, it means not thinking clearly, pulling away from friends and activities you used to enjoy, or hearing voices that others do not. No matter what kind of mental health condition someone is facing, it's always possible to recover.
We all have tough days and weeks and struggling with your mental health doesn't automatically mean you have a mental health condition. To be diagnosed, the changes in your thinking and emotions must be seriously hurting your ability to do the things you want to do; and sticking around longer than they should – weeks or months, depending on the condition.
Mental health is important for all of us. Taking care of yourself is critical to prevent your mental health from worsening – factors like nutrition and gut health, stress, sleep, relationships, trauma, and more can contribute to your mental health. If your mental health is in a good spot, it is a great time to practice coping skills – ways to help you deal with hard feelings – so that you're better able to handle tough times when they happen.
Coping Skill: a strategy to help you deal with difficult situations and lessen unpleasant emotions, thoughts, or behaviors
Health Insurance: a signed contract with a health insurance company that requires the company to pay for some of your health care costs
Lived Experience: first-hand, personal experience dealing with a mental health or substance use challenge
Mental Health Concern: anything that causes a person to believe their mental health may be suffering; could be a symptom, a group of symptoms, or a diagnosable mental health condition
Mental Health Condition: a set of related symptoms that have been recognized by the mental health community; includes conditions defined in the DSM-V, ICD-11, and by people with lived experience
Mental Health Professional: a licensed or certified mental health treatment provider (See mhanational.org/types-mental-health-professionals for a detailed list)
Mental Health Screen: an evaluation of your mental health and well-being through scientifically validated assessment tools (Visit mhascreening.org for free, confidential screening tools)
Neurotransmitters: chemicals that carry messages throughout your brain
Outpatient: treatment that takes place in an office, hospital, or other clinical setting but does not involve overnight stays
Peer: someone who shares the experience of living with a mental health condition and/or substance use disorder
Protective Factor: something that decreases the chances of developing a condition and/or balances out an existing risk factor
Psychiatrist: a licensed medical doctor who has completed additional psychiatric training; can diagnose mental health conditions, prescribe and manage medication, and provide therapy
Recovery: a process of change through which individuals improve their health and wellness, live self-directed lives, and strive to reach their full potential
Risk Factor: something that increases the chances of developing a condition
Self-Stigma: negative attitudes and shame regarding an individual’s own mental health, resulting from internalizing public stigma
Sliding Scale Payment: a payment model providers can use to make treatment financially accessible for those who would not otherwise be able to afford it due to income or lack of health insurance coverage
Social Determinants of Health: the conditions in which people live, learn, work, and play that impact their health and quality of life
Stigma: negative, judgmental, and/or discriminatory attitudes toward mental health challenges and those who live with them
Stress: a feeling of emotional or physical tension in response to being overwhelmed or unable to cope with mental/emotional pressure
Symptom: a physical or mental feature that indicates the potential existence of a concern, condition, or diagnosis
Therapist: a mental health professional trained to help individuals understand and cope with their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors; may assess and/or diagnose mental health conditions
Trauma: an emotional response to a disturbing, scary, or shocking experience that overwhelms an individual’s ability to cope
Most mental health conditions don’t have a single cause – they have many possible causes, called risk factors. The more risk factors you have, the more likely you are to develop a mental health condition in your lifetime. Mental health conditions can develop slowly, or symptoms can start to appear more suddenly after you’ve experienced a stressful event or big change.
It is important to know that experiencing any of the factors below doesn’t mean that you’ll definitely develop a mental health condition. You can take steps to reduce your risk factors or increase your protective factors – like building supportive relationships, taking care of your body, and practicing gratitude. Just like any health condition, knowing the risk factors can help you identify and address symptoms early on and plan a course of action to overall health.
Social Determinants of Health (SDOH)
SDOH are the conditions in which people live, learn, work, and play that impact their health and quality of life. There are five main categories – financial stability, education access and quality, health care access and quality, neighborhood and living environment, and social and community life. One example of how SDOH affects mental health is poverty. High poverty neighborhoods can cause stress, weaken healthy social connections, and harm the overall mental health of the people who live there, even when controlling for individual poverty.
Any experience that was highly stressful, shocking, or dangerous to you can be traumatic. Trauma is different for everyone – what feels normal to someone else might be traumatic to you, and vice versa. A traumatic event can threaten your physical safety (like being in a car accident), or it can be more emotional (like the sudden death of a loved one). Traumatic experiences can be one-time events (like getting in a fight) or ongoing (like bullying or childhood neglect). Situations like loneliness, seeing an accident, natural disasters, poverty, and racism can all cause a trauma response.
Your genes are passed down from your parents and ancestors. They act as the blueprint for how your body and brain develop and function. There’s no one gene that decides if you’ll have a mental health condition. Instead, many genes affect the way your brain develops, making you more or less likely to develop a mental health condition later.
Biology and Brain Chemistry
Some brains are wired differently, have too high or too low levels of certain neurotransmitters, or are damaged after a head injury. Abnormalities in the prefrontal cortex, frontal cortex, and other parts of the brain can also increase your chances of developing a mental health condition
Habits and Lifestyle
It’s important to take care of your body and mind. Things like not getting enough high-quality sleep, regularly unhealthy food choices, lack of exercise, and poor stress management can all play a role in developing a mental health condition. For instance, the occasional night of tossing and turning won’t hurt you long-term, but chronic exhaustion can. Sleep problems like insomnia, consistently poor sleep quality, and frequent nightmares are related to mental health concerns and conditions, including a higher risk for suicidal thoughts and behaviors.
Using drugs or alcohol can trigger a mental health condition by affecting mood, sleep, relationships, and physical health. It can also lead to changes in some of the same brain areas involved in other mental health conditions like depression and schizophrenia. It’s common for individuals already struggling with their mental health to turn to substances as a coping mechanism. This substance use can impact the effectiveness of medications and make it harder to recover from a mental health condition. When someone has a mental health condition that overlaps with a substance use disorder, it is either referred to as dual diagnosis or co-occurring disorders.
Everyone can experience anxiety, but when symptoms are overwhelming and constant — often impacting everyday living — it may be an anxiety disorder.
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
ADHD is a developmental disorder defined by inattention (trouble staying on task, listening); disorganization (losing materials); and hyperactivity-impulsivity (fidgeting, difficulty staying seated or waiting).
Bipolar disorder causes dramatic shifts in a person's mood, energy and ability to think clearly. Individuals with this disorder experience extreme high and low moods, known as mania and depression. Some people can be symptom-free for many years between episodes.
Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD)
Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) is characterized by a pattern of instability in emotions (commonly referred to as dysregulation), interpersonal relationships and self-image. Individuals with BPD can also struggle with impulsivity and self-harm.
Co-dependency is a learned behavior that can be passed down from one generation to another. It is an emotional and behavioral condition that affects an individual’s ability to have a healthy, mutually satisfying relationship. It is also known as “relationship addiction” because people with codependency often form or maintain relationships that are one-sided, emotionally destructive and/or abusive.
Depression involves recurrent, severe periods of clear-cut changes in mood, thought processes and motivation lasting for a minimum of two weeks. Changes in thought processes typically include negative thoughts and hopelessness. Depression also involves affects sleep/energy, appetite or weight.
Dissociative disorders, which are frequently associated with trauma, disrupt every area of psychological functioning: consciousness, memory, identity, emotion, motor control and behavior.
Eating disorders are characterized by the intentional changing of food consumption to the point where physical health or social behaviors are affected. Eating disorders, including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder and OSFED (other specified feeding or eating disorder), are bio-psycho-social diseases-- not fads, phases, or lifestyle choices. People struggling with an eating disorder often become obsessed with food, body image and/or weight. These disorders can be life-threatening if not recognized and treated appropriately.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is characterized by six months or more of chronic, exaggerated worry and tension that is unfounded or much more severe than the normal anxiety most people experience. People with this disorder usually expect the worst. They worry excessively about money, health, family or work, even when there are no signs of trouble. They are unable to relax and often suffer from insomnia. Many people with GAD also have physical symptoms, such as fatigue, trembling, muscle tension, headaches, irritability or hot flashes.
Learning disabilities are neurologically based processing problems. These processing problems can interfere with learning basic skills such as reading, writing and/or math. They can also interfere with higher level skills such as organization, time planning, abstract reasoning, long or short-term memory and attention. It is important to realize that learning disabilities can affect an individual’s life beyond academics and can impact relationships with family, friends and in the workplace.
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
OCD involves persistent, intrusive thoughts (obsessions) and repetitive behaviors that a person feels driven to perform (compulsions) in response to those thoughts.
Panic disorder is characterized by unexpected and repeated episodes of intense fear accompanied by physical symptoms that may include chest pain, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, dizziness, or abdominal distress. These sensations often mimic symptoms of a heart attack or other life-threatening medical conditions.
Paranoia involves intense anxious or fearful feelings and thoughts often related to persecution, threat, or conspiracy. Paranoia occurs in many mental disorders, but is most often present in psychotic disorders. Paranoia can become delusions, when irrational thoughts and beliefs become so fixed that nothing (including contrary evidence) can convince a person that what they think or feel is not true.
Post-Partum Depression (PPD)
Postpartum depression (PPD) is a major form of depression and is less common than postpartum blues. PPD includes all the symptoms of depression but occurs only following childbirth. It can begin any time after delivery and can last up to a year. PPD is estimated to occur in approximately 10 to 20 percent of new mothers.
Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
PTSD involves a set of physiological and psychological responses. It can occur in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event such as a natural disaster, a serious accident, a terrorist act, rape, war/combat, or something similar.
Psychosis is characterized as disruptions to a person’s thoughts and perceptions that make it difficult for them to recognize what is real and what isn’t.
Schizoaffective disorder involves symptoms of schizophrenia, such as hallucinations or delusions, and symptoms of a mood disorder, such as depressive or manic episodes. Schizophrenia Schizophrenia interferes with a person’s ability to think clearly, manage emotions, make decisions, and relate to others. It also causes people to lose touch with reality, often in the form of hallucinations and delusions.
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)
Seasonal depression, also known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD) or the "winter blues," is a subtype of depression or bipolar disorder that occurs and ends around the same time every year. Seasonal depression typically occurs when the seasons change, and most symptoms begin in the fall and continue into the winter months. However, seasonal depression can occur in the summer or spring, although this is less common.
Substance Use Disorder (SUD)
A substance use disorder (SUD) is a mental disorder that affects a person’s brain and behavior, leading to a person’s inability to control their use of substances such as legal or illegal drugs, alcohol, or medications. Symptoms can range from moderate to severe, with addiction being the most severe form of SUDs. If using substances starts to have a negative effect on life, it's a sign of possible addiction.
Food Choices and Nutrition
The quality of food you eat can impact your overall physical and mental health. Your gut is often called “the second brain” and communicates with your actual brain – physically through the vagus nerve and chemically through hormones and neurotransmitters (chemical messengers that carry signals between cells). The bacteria, viruses, and fungi that live in the gut are called the “gut microbiome” – eating nutritious foods is the number one thing you can do to keep your gut microbiome healthy and protect your brain. Important nutrients for mental health:
• Omega-3 Fatty Acids: essential to brain health and reduce inflammation and risk of heart disease.
• B-Group Vitamins: help to regulate brain chemicals, immune function, and amino acids (the building blocks of proteins)
• Vitamin D: important for brain function, including mood and critical thinking
Your health heavily depends on how rested you are. Sleep plays a role in your moods, ability to learn and make memories, organ health, immune system, and other bodily functions like appetite, metabolism, and hormone release. It also helps the body re-energize its cells and clear out toxins. Quality of sleep matters, not just how many hours you get. Good quality sleep means:
• Being asleep for 85% of the time you’re in bed or more.
• Falling asleep in under 30 minutes
• Waking up no more than once per night for no longer than 20 minutes.
Staying active benefits many aspects of health and can prevent physical and mental health symptoms from worsening. Making time for exercise and movement each day improves self-esteem, brain function, and sleep and has been found to lessen social withdrawal and stress. Getting exercise doesn’t have to be intimidating!
You don’t have to work out for hours on end – just 15 minutes of intense exercise at a time, ten times a week, will get you the recommended amount of physical activity. Just one hour of exercise per week can help prevent symptoms of depression.
Choose activities that are easy to work into your life – walk the dog for an extra 20 minutes or do some floor exercises while you’re watching a movie or your favorite show.
Coping skills are activities or strategies you can use to reduce or tolerate tough feelings. No one thing works for everyone, so it might take a few tries to figure out what helps you. Test out a range of techniques so that you’re prepared for those times when your well-being starts to slip. You may want to keep a running list (on your phone or on paper) of what works for you, like calling a friend or doing an at-home workout. This makes it easier to get started when you’re in a tough mental state.
Dealing with stress is a normal part of life – we all experience it during times of too much responsibility, too little sleep, or external worries like money or relationships. In most cases, stress comes and goes fairly quickly, and the body can return to its typical state. However, consistently high stress – because you are unable to relieve your stress or are constantly facing stressful situations (chronic stress) – can negatively impact attention, memory, and how you deal with emotions in the long term.
Having people in your life who you relate to and can lean on goes a long way in improving your mood and general well-being. Humans are social beings, and our brains are wired to seek connection. Having people to support you during times of hardship protects your long-term mental health. Not only can a strong social support system often prevent mental health concerns or symptoms from developing into a diagnosable mental health condition – a strong social support system has also been shown to improve overall outcomes in recovering from a mental health condition.
Find your people: Connect with people over shared hobbies and interests – it’s less intimidating to make new friends when you already have something in common. Consider community service or volunteering. Giving back is a great way to feel less alone – you’ll meet new people and likely learn about local events and resources. Focus on quality relationships – having one person you really trust will serve you better than many surface-level connections.
Resources mentioned below come from Mental Health America’s network of trusted partners and supporters.
Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA)
ADAA is an international nonprofit organization dedicated to the prevention, treatment, and cure of anxiety, depression, OCD, PTSD, and co-occurring disorders through the alignment of science, treatment, and education.
Caregiver Action Network (CAN)
CAN is the nation’s leading family caregiver organization working to improve the quality of life for the more than 90 million Americans who care for loved ones with chronic conditions, disabilities, disease, or the frailties of old age. Individuals can reach out for guidance and support to their dedicated Caregiver Help Desk.
Support and information for people with Schizophrenia, Schizoaffective, and Bipolar Disorder and their caregivers, including Strategies for Success that can be used daily by people living with mental health conditions.
Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA)
DBSA envisions wellness for people living with mood disorders. DBSA offers peer-based, wellness-oriented support and empowering services and resources available when people need them, where they need them, and how they need to receive them – online 24/7, in local support groups, in audio and video casts, or in printed materials distributed by DBSA, their chapters, and mental health care facilities across America.
Effective School Solutions (ESS)
ESS partners with school districts to help them implement culturally inclusive mental health and behavioral support programs that improve care, strengthen outcomes, address trauma, and maintain students in their home district.
Equoo is a game that teaches individuals psychological skills in a fun and captivating way to deal with emotional and mental stressors in a healthy and productive fashion.
Happify brings you effective tools and programs (via the web and an app) to help you take control of your feelings and thoughts using proven techniques developed by leading scientists and experts who’ve been studying evidence-based interventions in the fields of positive psychology, mindfulness, and cognitive behavioral therapy.
IDONTMIND is a mental health awareness campaign and lifestyle brand working to get people talking about their minds and to generate positive messaging about mental health. Check out their online journal for articles on all things mental health.
Access Mental Health America’s Inspire Community to engage with peers who share similar experiences across hundreds of condition-specific support communities.
Lyf is a social media app where users share highly personal aspects of themselves without the fear of judgment. Lyf users receive support during some of their most grueling, challenging, confronting or even “embarrassing” stages of their lives from other people who have no preconceptions about their fellow Lyfers. Lyfers have the opportunity to connect with and chat to others on the same life paths or journeys, whether it’s a struggle or celebration, in Lyf, you aren’t alone.
Mental Health Coalition (MHC)
Formed to catalyze like-minded communities to work together to destigmatize mental health and empower access to vital resources and necessary support for all, the MHC connects individuals to a range of different resources from Coalition members.
Minding Your Mind
Minding Your Mind creates experiences that open minds and show people they are not alone when they are struggling. Their group of young adult speakers, who have successfully and productively coped with their mental health challenges, share their stories of hope, recovery, and resilience. They use the power of storytelling to provide evidence-based education about mental health challenges in schools, communities, and workplaces. Minding Your Mind encourages youth to seek help and ensures that those around them are effectively prepared to provide that help.
National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN)
NCTSN was created to raise the standard of care and increase access to services for children and families who experience or witness traumatic events.
National Alliance for Eating Disorders
The National Alliance for Eating Disorders is a national non-profit organization dedicated to the outreach, education, early intervention, support, and advocacy for all eating disorders. notOK App: The notOK App® is a free app that takes the guesswork out of asking for help when you’re feeling vulnerable.
OPEN Mental Health
Stories and advice from people who either live with mental health issues or care for someone who does.
PositivePsychology.com is a science-based online resource of courses, techniques, tools, and tips to help you put positive psychology into practice. Postpartum Support International The mission of Postpartum Support International is to promote awareness, prevention, and treatment of mental health issues related to childbearing in every country worldwide.
Psychology Today Therapist Finder
Psychology Today has an extensive database of therapists where you can filter search results based on therapist gender, accepted insurance, types of therapy, and more.
SAMHSA Behavioral Health Treatment Services Locator
SAMHSA’s Behavioral Health Treatment Services Locator is a confidential and anonymous source of information for persons seeking treatment facilities in the United States or U.S. Territories for substance use/addiction and/or mental health concerns.
Self-Injury Recovery Anonymous (SIRA)
SIRA provides a safe space for individuals who engage in physical self-injury to come together to share experiences, strength, and hope without judgment or criticism, with the goal of stopping physical self-injury.
Supportiv is a digital peer-to-peer support network that enables people to process, cope with, heal from, and problem solve mental health (anxiety, depression) + daily life struggles (loneliness, family pressure, parenting challenges, relationship conflicts, work stress) in safe, professionally moderated micro-community chats.
Teen Talk is a free mobile app that helps teens get social and emotional support from a group of people they trust most: their peers. Download for iPhone or Android.
Free Online Therapy and Resources for Mental Health and Substance Problems. Learn more at www.thriverange.org
Mental health is an important part of overall health and well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act. It may also affect how we handle stress, relate to others, and make choices during an emergency. Fear and anxiety can be overwhelming and cause strong emotions. Get immediate help in a crisis:
• Call 911
• Disaster Distress Helpline: Call or Text 1-800-985-5990 (press 2 for Spanish)
• National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255) for English, 1-888-628-9454 for Spanish, or Lifeline Crisis Chat
• National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233 or text LOVEIS to 22522
• National Child Abuse Hotline: 1-800-4AChild (1-800-422-4453) or text 1-800-422-4453
• National Sexual Assault Hotline: 1-800-656-HOPE (4673) or Online Chat
• The Eldercare Locator: 1-800-677-1116
• Veteran's Crisis Line: 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or Crisis Chat or text 8388255
To learn more, visit the CDC website.