Every year, the month of May is observed as Mental Health Awareness Month in the United States, an outreach initiative founded in 1949 by Mental Health America—previously known as the National Association for Mental Health. The initiative was designed to create public awareness, fight stigma around mental health issues, and provide support to those affected by mental illnesses.
The American Psychological Association (APA) defines mental health as “a state of mind characterized by emotional well-being, good behavioral adjustment, relative freedom from anxiety and disabling symptoms, and a capacity to establish constructive relationships and cope with the ordinary demands and stresses of life.” While stress is a common response in crises, prolonged stress can affect a person’s emotions, thoughts, and behaviors in a way that hinders them from functioning in their everyday life. Mental illness encompasses more than 200 types of conditions, some of which are depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. According to a Mental Health America 2023 report, nearly 20.78% of adults (more than 50 million Americans) suffered from a mental illness in the United States in 2019–2020. The Cleveland Clinic states that suicide, often correlated to mental health conditions, is the second leading cause of death in ages 15 to 34 in the United States.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) revealed that, in 2021:
In 2023, Forbes Health reported:
Omnigraphics Health Reference Sourcebooks, such as the Anxiety Disorders Sourcebook and the Depression Sourcebook provide in-depth information about many mental health issues. Books in the Teen Health series such as Anxiety and Depression Information for Teens and Mental Health Information for Teens examine these disorders through the perspective of young people, who struggle with many of them. The most common types of mental health disorders include:
Also known as mood disorders, depressive disorders affect a person’s emotional state and make it difficult to perform daily tasks. Symptoms may include feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and fatigue. Examples include major depressive disorder, premenstrual dysphoric disorder, disruptive mood dysregulation disorder, and bipolar disorder and its subtypes.
Neurodevelopmental disorders affect a person’s brain function and usually develop in infancy or childhood. These disorders can result in difficulty expressing oneself, physical tics, and problems regulating one’s behavior. Examples include attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism spectrum disorder, Tourette syndrome, schizophrenia, speech, and language disorders.
Anxiety disorders are characterized by feelings of excessive worry or fear over future events even if there is no cause for worry. Examples include generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), panic disorders, separation anxiety disorder, and phobias.
Eating disorders are characterized by an unhealthy relationship with food and body image that affects a person’s emotional and physical health. Examples include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder. Eating disorders are often comorbid with other psychiatric disorders.
Trauma- and stressor-related disorders develop after exposure to a traumatic or stressful life event, such as an accident, natural disaster, or violence. Examples include post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and acute stress disorder.
Obsessive-compulsive and related disorders are characterized by preoccupation or obsessive thoughts that lead to repetitive actions or behaviors. Examples include hoarding disorder, trichotillomania (hair-pulling disorder), body dysmorphic disorder, etc.
Disruptive, impulse-control, and conduct disorders are characterized by difficulty controlling impulses and aggressive behavior. Examples include oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), kleptomania, and pyromania. Conditions in this group may co-occur with disorders such as ADHD, OCD, anxiety disorders, and others.
The following factors may heighten one’s risk for developing a mental health disorder:
Common signs of mental health disorders include:
Treatment for mental health disorders requires a team of professionals working together. This may include:
Also known as general practitioners, these doctors practice general medicine and have knowledge of a wide range of medical conditions. Primary physicians can help diagnose a mental health disorder and refer the patient to a specialist for treatment.
Psychologists are specialists trained in human behavior but are not medical doctors. However, those with a doctorate in psychology (Doctor of Philosophy or Doctor of Psychology) can use the title "Dr." but cannot prescribe medication. Psychologists treat mental health conditions through counseling, psychotherapy, and psychological testing. They may specialize as a clinical, counseling, occupational, or forensic psychologist, or a neuropsychologist.
Psychiatrists are doctors with a Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (D.O.) degrees in clinical psychology and are trained to diagnose and treat mental, emotional, or behavioral problems. They are trained in psychotherapy and can prescribe medication. Psychiatrists may specialize in treating learning disabilities, children and adolescents, forensics, or other disciplines.
Psychiatric nurses are registered nurses (RNs) trained to treat psychiatric disorders and may work independently or under a psychiatrist's supervision. Psychiatric nurses are permitted to administer psychiatric medications.
Social workers help individuals with mental health issues manage their personal and social lives. From helping patients qualify for social services requirements to obtaining counseling services for them, a social worker assists the patient to function in or transition back to their family and community, and regain control of their life.
According to the American Psychiatric Association, a counselor is one trained in counseling, psychology, social work, or nursing in the fields such as rehabilitation, vocation, marriage, substance abuse, education, and relationships and family. Counselors meet with patients to offer them advice and guidance and help them learn coping skills and strategies for managing their illness. Another form of counseling, called spiritual or pastoral counseling, is offered by local church leaders focused on crises in faith, family, and marriage.
Medications such as antidepressants, anti-anxiety, and antipsychotics can help treat and manage symptoms of mental health disorders; however, they do not cure the condition.
Commonly known as "talk therapy," psychotherapy can be practiced by psychologists and licensed therapists or counselors. Psychotherapists use the art of conversation and empathy to help individuals identify problem areas in their lives and offer insightful solutions. A psychotherapy session can either be one-on-one or in a group setting, a short-term or a long-term requirement, depending on the case. The most common form of psychotherapy is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), designed to help patients recognize negative thought patterns and behavior and change them to positive ones.
Brain-stimulation therapies may be used if medication and psychotherapy fail to improve the patient's condition. These therapies use electric shocks and magnetic fields to stimulate nerves and cells in the brain. Electroconvulsive therapy, vagus nerve stimulation, and transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) are examples of brain-stimulation therapies.
Alternative therapies include yoga, meditation, acupuncture, massage, hypnotherapy, and herbal remedies. These may be used in addition to or instead of conventional medicine to treat anxiety, chronic pain, depression, and hypertension. When used alongside conventional medicine, it is called complementary medicine.
If you suspect you have a mental health disorder, reach out to a trusted family member, friend, or primary care provider who can help you navigate your next step and provide the necessary support. If you feel in crisis and in need of immediate support or intervention, call 911 for emergency responders or 988 for the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. For additional helplines, resources, and support, you can also reach out to organizations such as:
Mental Health America provides a toolkit for creating handouts, posters, and social media content to help you recognize Mental Health Awareness Month and raise awareness in your community. You can also download the 2023 Toolkit from Mental Health America.