The complex world of mental illness disorders

What exactly is a Mental Illness Disorder?

The term “mental illness” covers a whole range of mental problems. Each condition presents different characteristics but it's not always easy to tell them apart. Some mental conditions may present similar traits and, quite often, people who are affected by one kind of mental illness can also be partially affected by another.

For doctors, it is extremely important to determine the main source of symptoms for coming up with a proper treatment plan. Besides, since mental conditions are unfortunately stigmatized in our society,  it is important to establish how abnormal specific symptoms are based on how they affect the everyday life of the individual.

It's hard to determine if a condition is truly pathological but it's even harder to move through all the grey areas in between similar mental illness disorders.

When are conditions actually pathological and how to tell them apart


Everyone feels angry sometimes. It is part of being human but it becomes a problem if it harms you or the people around you. This can happen when you regularly convey your anger through destructive or socially unhelpful behavior and it has a negative influence on your physical or mental health.

Anxiety or panic attacks

“Anxiety” is the word the medical profession use to describe feelings of fear, worry and unease. It covers both the physical sensations and emotions one might experience when we are nervous or worried about something.

Anxiety is a normal human response and it is sometimes difficult to identify when it is becoming a problem for you. There is no hard and fast definition but generally if your anxiety is very strong and becoming overwhelming, you have a problem.

Bipolar disorder

Bipolar disorder affects your moods. You can feel extremely high (manic or hypomanic episodes) or especially depressed, or both at the same time, or have psychotic symptoms such as delusions or hallucinations.

Psychosis is not experienced by everyone with bipolar disorder. It is most common when you are high but can happen when you are depressed. The delusions or hallucinations can seem very real to you which makes it very hard to understand other people's concerns about you.

Body dysmorphic disorder (BDD)

If you have BDD you may experience obsessive concerns about one or more perceived imperfections in your physical appearance – flaws that are minimal or simply cannot be seen by others. This may result in compulsive routines or behaviours. BDD varies in severity between patients and from day to day. Sometimes appearance concerns can make it difficult for patients to meet other people or appear in public.

Borderline personality disorder (BPD)

You might be diagnosed with BPD if you experience at least five of the following things, and they have a big impact on your daily life and have lasted for a long time:

  • You have very strong feelings that last from a few days to a few hours and can change quickly (for example, from feeling very happy and confident in the morning to feeling low and sad in the afternoon).
  • You have a weak sense of who you are, and it can alter depending on who you are with.
  • You feel very worried about people leaving you, and will do anything to prevent that happening.
  • You self harm or have suicidal thoughts.
  • You feel lonely a lot of the time.
  • You find it very hard to keep stable relationships.
  • You act impulsively and do things that can harm yourself (such as binge eating or driving dangerously).
  • You get very angry, and have difficulty controlling your anger.
  • When very stressed, sometimes you might:
    1. feel under threat even when there is no evidence that you are (paranoid)
    2. Seeing or hearing things other people don't (Psychotic experiences)
    3. feel numb or 'checked out' and not remembering things properly after they've happened.

As you need to experience five of these possible symptoms to be diagnosed with BPD it becomes a broad diagnosis and includes different people with very different experiences.


Depression is having a very low mood which lasts for a long time. At its most severe, depression can make you give up the will to live or become suicidal.

Dissociative identity disorder

Dissociation is where you feel disconnected from yourself or the world around you. It is the way your mind copes with excessive stress. Everyone can feel dissociated from time to time but if it lasts a long time it can become a problem and develop into dissociative identity disorder.

Drugs (recreational) and alcohol

All drugs affect your mental health. They can affect your mood, the way you see things and your behavior.

These affects can be:

  • be unpleasant or pleasant
  • longer-lasting or short-lived
  • be similar to those you experience as part of a mental health problem
  • go away once the drug has worn off
  • continue once the drug has worn off

For some people, taking drugs can lead to long-term mental health problems, such as depression or schizophrenia.

Eating problems

Since eating problems can noticeably affect your body, you may feel that those around you focus mainly on your actions, or on the physical impact they have. But you may also feel that your problem is more complicated than the people around you realize.

But what is the difference between an eating problem and an eating disorder? An eating problem is any kind of relationship with food that you are finding difficult. It may be considered to be an eating disorder if your behavior meets the medical criteria for a diagnosis. A doctor will look at your eating patterns to make a diagnosis. They may also measure your weight or body mass index (BMI), or take blood tests.

Hearing voices

You are “hearing voices” if you hear a voice which other people with you cannot hear or when no-one else is present.

People have many different experiences of hearing voices. Some do not mind their voices while others find them distracting or frightening.

People often think that if they hear voices they must have a mental health problem. But research shows that plenty of people hear voices and most of them are not mentally unwell. It is simply a common human experience. It only becomes a problem when the voices become distracting or frightening.

Hypo-mania and mania

Hypo-mania and mania are periods of over-active and excited behaviour that have a major impact on your daily life. Hypo-mania is a mild version of mania that lasts for a few days whereas mania is a more severe form that lasts for a week or more.

Both can be experienced on their own or as part of a wider mood disorder – such as bipolar disorder, postpartum psychosis, seasonal affective disorder or schizoaffective disorder.

Some people find hypomania and mania enjoyable, whereas for other people it is very uncomfortable, unpleasant and distressing.


In itself feeling lonely is not a mental health problem, but the two are strongly linked. If you have a mental health problem there is a greater chance that you will feel lonely, and feeling lonely can have a negative impact on your mental health.

Although most of us need some social contact to maintain good mental health, everyone has different social needs. Perhaps you are someone who is content with a few close friends, or you may be you need a large group of varied acquaintances to feel satisfied.

Low self esteem

Self-esteem is how we value and feel about ourselves. If you have low self-esteem you may feel:

  • low in confidence.
  • like you dislike or hate yourself
  • not good enough or worthless
  • unable to assert yourself or make decisions
  • as if no one likes you for spending time or money on yourself
  • unable to recognize your strengths
  • you blame yourself for things that aren't your fault
  • undeserving of happiness

Low self esteem can stop you living the life you want to live.

Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)

OCD is an anxiety disorder. There are two elements: compulsions and obsessions.

Compulsions are repetitive activities that reduce the anxiety caused by the obsession. It could be something like repeatedly checking a window is shut, repeating specific words in your head or counting lamp posts as you drive along.

Obsessions are unwelcome images, urges, thoughts, worries or doubts that you repeatedly think about. They can make you feel very anxious, although some patients describe it as 'mental discomfort' as opposed to anxiety.


Paranoia is thinking and feeling as if you are under threat even though there is no evidence that you are. Your fears become amplified and everyone you meet becomes drawn into that web. You become the center of a threatening world.

Paranoid thoughts can also be exaggerated suspicions. For example, someone once made an unkind comment to you and you now think that they are targeting a hate campaign against you.

Personality disorders

The word “personality” refers to the pattern of behaviour, thoughts and feelings that make each of us who we are. It affects the way we think, feel and behave.

We don't always think, feel and behave in exactly the same way but we mostly tend to behave in fairly predictable ways – it depends on the situation we are in, the people with us and many other things. Personality disorders are types of mental problem where your behaviours, attitudes and beliefs create longstanding problems in your life.

Your experience of personality disorder will be unique to yourself. However, you can experience difficulties in how you think about yourself and others and find it difficult to alter these unwanted patterns.


A phobia is an extreme form of fear or anxiety triggered by a particular situation even when there is no danger. For example, fear of birds or the fear of leaving the house.

Many of us have fears about particular objects or situations, and this is perfectly normal. A fear becomes a mental phobia if it is extreme and lasts for more than six months, and has a significant impact on how you live your life.

Postnatal depression

Having a baby is a big life event in a woman's life and it's natural to experience a range of emotions and reactions during and after pregnancy. But if your emotions begin to have a major impact on how you live your life, you may be experiencing a mental health problem.

Approximately one in five women will experience a mental health problem during pregnancy or in the year following birth.

Post traumatic stress disorder

If you are involved in or see a distressing event, it is common to experience upsetting or confusing feelings afterwards. Those feelings of distress may not emerge immediately – you may simply feel emotionally frozen at first. Then, after a while, you may have an emotional and physical reaction, such as not being able to sleep or being unable to deal with the slightest stress.

Such reactions are understandable and many people will find that these symptoms disappear relatively quickly. But if your reactions last for more than a month, or are extreme, you may be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Distress has no time limit and some people may not develop post-traumatic symptoms for many years after the event.


A psychotic experience or psychotic episode (psychosis) is when you see or interpret reality in a very different way from those around you. You may be thought of as losing touch with reality.

The most common types of psychosis are delusions and hallucinations but some may also suffer from disorganized speech and thinking.

Psychosis affects people in many different ways. You might live with it most of the time, have short episodes throughout your life, or experience it just once.

Schizoaffective disorder

You may be diagnosed with a schizoaffective disorder if you experience:

  • mood symptoms of bipolar disorder, and
  • psychotic symptoms, similar to schizophrenia, and
  • you have both symptoms at the same time or within two weeks of each other

Patients may have times when they struggle to look after themselves and when their doctor considers that they lack understanding of their behaviour or how they are feeling. Between episodes they may feel quite well.

A schizoaffective disorder is not necessarily a lifetime diagnosis. The episodes can vary in length and some patients have repeated episodes- but this does not necessarily happen.


Schizophrenia is a diagnosis given for those experiencing some of the following symptoms:

  • wanting to avoid people
  • a lack of interest in things
  • difficulty concentrating
  • hearing voices
  • delusions
  • hallucinations
  • being disconnected from your feelings
  • feel the need to be protected.

Seasonal affective disorder

Seasonal affective disorder is a recognized mental health disorder. It is a type of depression that people experience at a certain time of year or during a particular season.

A lot of us are affected by the change in seasons – for example, it's normal for us to feel more cheerful and energetic when the sun is shining in summer, or to sleep or eat more when the nights are longer in winter.

However, if you experience seasonal affective disorder, your seasonal moods are very pronounced, even depressive, and have a considerable impact on your day-to-day life.

Self harm

Self-harm is when you hurt yourself as a way of dealing with very difficult emotions, overwhelming situations, painful memories or experiences that make you feel out of control. It can be the thing people resort to when they believe they have no other alternative.

Sleep problems

If poor sleep is having a significant affect on your daily life, your doctor may consider you to have a sleep problem as there is a close relationship between sleep and mental health. Living with a mental health problem can affect how well you sleep, and poor sleep can have a negative impact on your mental health.

Sleep problems can cause negative thoughts, anxiety or depression as you may be unable to rationalize irrational thoughts or worries. It can also make you unable to socialize or see friends and feel isolated or lonely. And if you suffer from psychotic episodes, it can worsen existing symptoms.


Being under stress is part of normal life. It can be the useful push that helps you take action, feel more energized and obtain results. But if you often become overwhelmed by the pressure, stress can begin to be a problem for you.

Stress is not a psychiatric diagnosis. However, it is closely linked to your mental health in two important ways.

Firstly, it can cause mental health problems or make existing problems worse - like depression or anxiety.

Secondly, the pressure of coping with mental health problems can, in itself, create stress. For example, coping with the day-to-day symptoms of your underlying mental health problem, or managing your medication, or simply coping with treatments or appointments with your doctor.

This can all begin to feel like a vicious circle and be hard to see where stress ends and your mental health problems begins.


Suicidal feelings can be terribly frightening not only for the person who is experiencing but also their partner, family, and friends. The feelings may include:

  • believing death is your only option
  • being undecided as to whether you want to live or die.
  • feeling unable to cope and overwhelmed
  • feeling helpless and worthless
  • having low self esteem
  • feelings of angry towards yourself
  • feeling that things will never improve
  • feeling as if you are not understood by others and totally isolated

Tardive dyskinesia (TD)

Tardive dyskinesia is the medical term that describes the involuntary sudden, jerky or slow twisting movements of the face or body (or both) caused as an unwanted side effect of medication - usually antipsychotic drugs which are typically prescribed for schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, bipolar disorder and severe depression.

TD can have an impact on your physical ability to do day-to-day activities, although it is not normally as serious as that. However, it can often be emotionally and socially disabling and very distressing.

Last Reviewed:
February 15, 2017
Last Updated:
October 19, 2017