Is Mental Illness a Disease?

Mental health is a concept that society has long misunderstood. 

We’ve often told individuals with mental health conditions that it’s “all in their head” and that they just need to “snap out of it.” And for a long time, this was how society viewed and treated mental illness. The idea that the brain can be sick in the same way the heart or lungs might be is something that many refuse to believe. 

But the truth is mental illness is very real. And it’s no different from any other medical disease, like heart disease or diabetes. It can be just as debilitating and even deadly if not treated properly. It’s also highly prevalent. One in five adults in the United States will experience a mental health disorder in their lifetime. This means that the chances of you knowing someone who is struggling with a mental illness are not slim.

man sitting on bench with head in hands

In recent years, people started warming up to the concept of openly discussing their struggles with mental health. However, there is always room for progress. Combating the stigma around mental health is crucial in forging new paths for people who suffer from mental illnesses. And being knowledgeable is a step toward that. 

Why is Mental Illness a Disease?

Mental illness, also called a mental health disorder, is a condition that significantly impairs an individual’s thoughts, emotions, or behavior. 

Some of the most common mental health disorders include:

  • Depression.
  • Anxiety.
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
  • Bipolar disorder.

These mental health conditions can profoundly affect every aspect of an individual’s life. Those suffering from mental illnesses may have trouble going to work or school, maintaining relationships, taking care of themselves, and carrying out day-to-day tasks. 

In severe cases, mental illness can lead to suicidal thoughts or behaviors.

woman standing outside struggling with mental health issues

It’s important to keep in mind that mental illness is not a choice nor a personal failing. It’s a real medical condition caused by a complex combination of factors. These can include biological factors (like genetic predisposition or brain chemistry), psychological factors (like trauma or stress), and social factors (like poverty or social isolation). 

For many people, a combination of these factors leads to the development of a mental illness. 

If an individual who has naturally low levels of dopamine — the neurotransmitter that helps regulate mood, motivation, and pleasure, associated with depression — experiences a traumatic or stressful event, a gene-environment interaction occurs, and they may be more likely to develop depression as a result. 

Mental illness can be difficult to explain by just one thing. Current research continues to try to understand and determine all the combinations of factors that can contribute to its development and how these factors can affect individuals differently. 

Mental Illnesses Can Also Manifest as Physical Symptoms 

One of the biggest misconceptions surrounding mental illness is that it’s “all in your head.” 

It’s true that the root cause of mental illness is often psychological. But the effects of mental illness go beyond just an individual’s thoughts or emotions. 

Mental illnesses can also cause physical symptoms, like fatigue, headaches, body aches, and stomach problems. Adverse Childhood Experience research revealed that childhood trauma, neglect, and structural oppressions manifest not just in mental health problems in adulthood but also in physical health problems, like chronic low-grade inflammation.

man with headache putting head in hands

This is because mental illnesses can alter how the human body reacts to stress. When you’re constantly under stress, your body goes into “fight-or-flight” mode, leading to a whole host of physical problems. 

Mental Illnesses are Also Often Comorbid with Other Medical Conditions 

Comorbidity is the presence of two or more disorders or illnesses in an individual at the same time. Mental illness is often comorbid with other medical conditions, like heart disease, diabetes, and obesity

This is because mental illness can affect individuals’ ability to take care of themselves. It can lead to unhealthy behaviors, like smoking or poor dietary choices. 

How Do We Diagnose Mental Illness?

We can diagnose mental illnesses using specific criteria, just like any other medical condition. 

Mental illness is often viewed as “not real” because it can’t be objectively diagnosed using tests like bloodwork or x-rays, unlike other diseases. 

It’s true that there’s no modern technology that can accurately measure an individual’s mental state. But decades of research have made it possible to diagnose mental illnesses. We use a comprehensive set of criteria written in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).

The DSM is a guidebook by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) containing all mental disorders and their corresponding symptoms. 

A mental health professional will use the DSM to diagnose an individual with a mental illness if they meet a certain number of criteria for that particular disorder. For example, to be diagnosed with depression, an individual must have experienced five or more symptoms — like fatigue or weight loss — for at least two weeks.

man talking to therapist

The DSM is constantly being updated as new research and findings are published daily. And new and existing disorders are either added or modified. Currently, the fifth edition or DSM-V is the most recent version. 

Mental Illness is Highly Treatable 

One of the most dangerous things about mental illness is its stigma. 

Many different things perpetuate the stigma around mental illness — the media, society, and even our personal beliefs. This stigma can make it difficult for people to seek help because they’re afraid of looking crazy or weak. 

But the truth is that mental illness is highly treatable. And most people who seek treatment see significant improvements in their symptoms. 

There are a wide variety of treatment options available for mental illnesses, including medication, therapy, and support groups. It’s important to remember that everyone’s battle with mental illness is different. So, what works for one person might not work for another. Mental health practitioners can help affected individuals find the treatment that works for them.

The Bottom Line  

Mental illness is not something individuals should be embarrassed about having. It’s a real and serious medical issue that must be treated with the same care and compassion as any other disease.

If you or someone you know is struggling with your mental health, don’t hesitate to seek professional help from mental health practitioners. Treatment can make a world of difference. There are a lot of resources available that can help you find the support that you need.

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Jonathan Baktari MD

Jonathan Baktari, MD brings over 20 years of clinical, administrative and entrepreneurial experience to lead the current e7 Health team. He has been a triple board-certified physician with specialties in internal medicine, pulmonary and critical care medicine. He has been the Medical Director of The Valley Health Systems, Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield, Culinary Health Fund and currently is the CEO of two healthcare companies.
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