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Families meeting the challenge of mental illness.

Brain.Serious Mental Illness

As with other illnesses, mental illness is severe in some cases and mild in others.  According to the Public Health Service Act, an adult has a Serious Mental Illness (SMI) if he or she meets the following criteria:

  • An established DSM-IV diagnosis (excluding dementia, developmental disorder or substance abuse as the principal diagnosis);
  • Persistence of the disorder for a period of time sufficient to meet the DSM-IV diagnostic criteria;
  • Significant and persistent impairment in one or more life roles/functions.

Because of its detrimental effect on thought, mood, perception, orientation or memory, serious mental illness significantly impairs a person’s judgment, behavior, capacity to recognize reality, and/or ability to meet the ordinary demands of life. Serious mental illnesses include (but are not limited to):

Bipolar Disorder
Major Depression
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
Panic Disorder
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD)



Schizophrenia interferes with a person’s ability to think clearly, manage emotions, make decisions, and relate to others. Many living with this disorder have hallucinations (seeing or hearing things that are not there) and delusions (believing things that are not real or true). Because the illness causes unusual and unpredictable behavior, people living with schizophrenia often are shunned. Schizophrenia, however, is actually a highly treatable mental illness.

Schizophrenia affects more that two million American adults each year. The first signs typically emerge during the teenage years and twenties. It can run in families.

For more information on schizophrenia from the National Institute of Mental Health, go here.


Bipolar Disorder

Bipolar disorder (also known as manic depression) is a mental illness characterized by extreme shifts in mood, energy, and functioning. People with this diagnosis experience alternating episodes of mania (severe highs) and depression (severe lows) and mixed states, lasting for days, weeks or even months. With treatment and support, 80-90 percent of persons with bipolar disorder can achieve recovery.

Bipolar disorder affects nearly 6 million adults in the U.S. The first signs typically emerge during adolescence or early adulthood. It is believed to be caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain.  Some people may have a genetic predisposition to the illness.

For more information on bipolar disorder from the National Institute of Mental Health, go here.


Major Depression

Major depression is a serious medical illness that involves disturbances in mood, concentration, sleep, activity, appetite, and social behavior. Unlike temporary feelings of sadness, major depression is persistent; left untreated, it can lead to suicide. With treatment, approximately 80 percent of those living with serious depression can return to their usual activities and feelings, usually within weeks or months.

It is estimated that 15 million American adults suffer from major depression in a given year, making it the leading cause of disability in the U.S. Major depression can occur at any age to people of all ethnic and socioeconomic groups.

For more information on major depression from the National Institute of Mental Health, go here.


Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

OCD is an anxiety disorder characterized by recurrent, involuntary thoughts (obsessions) and repetitive behaviors (compulsions) to relieve the distress of the obsessions. Some common obsessions are fear of contamination, fear of danger to oneself and others, need for exactness, and excessive doubts. Some common compulsions are repetitive hand washing, counting, checking, hoarding, and arranging. With a personalized treatment plan, most people living with OCD will experience sufficient relief from their symptoms to return to normal functioning.

OCD affects more than three million American adults ages 18 to 54 each year, making it one of the 10 leading causes of disability in the U.S. The first symptoms of OCD often begin during childhood or adolescence. Anyone can develop this disorder.

For more information on obsessive-compulsive disorder from the National Institute of Mental Health, go here.


Panic Disorder

Panic disorder is an anxiety disorder characterized by unexpected and repeated episodes of intense fear often accompanied by chest pain, heart palpitation, shortness of breath, dizziness, and/or abdominal distress. These episodes, known as “panic attacks,” are responses to ordinary, non-threatening life experiences.

It is not uncommon for a person with panic disorder to develop intense, irrational fears (phobias) of situations associated with past episodes. With a personalized treatment plan, most people living with panic disorder experience relief from their symptoms.

More than two million American adults ages 18-54 have panic disorder in a given year. This illness typically develops in late adolescence or early adulthood. For more information about panic disorder from the National Institute of Mental Health, go here.


Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

PTSD is an anxiety disorder that may follow a traumatic event that caused intense fear, helplessness, or horror. It can result from personally experiencing or witnessing trauma such as rape, war, a serious accident, a natural disaster, or captivity. People living with PTSD may re-live the trauma in nightmares and flashbacks and may avoid things that remind them of their horrible experience. Most people with PTSD who are engaged in a personalized treatment plan find relief from their symptoms.

Studies indicate that between two and nine percent of the population has had some degree of PTSD. The likelihood of developing the illness is greater when a person is exposed to repeated trauma early in life.

For more information about post-traumatic stress disorder from the National Institute of Mental Health, go here.


Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD)

BPD is characterized by impulsiveness, marked mood swings, anger, unstable, intense personal relationships, and problems with self image. Originally thought to “border on” schizophrenia, BPD also appears to be related to serious depressive illness. A combination of effective medication, psychotherapy, and other treatment supports help most people living with BPD to experience relief from their symptoms.

BPD affects about two percent of adults, and is diagnosed more frequently in females than in males. There is a high rate of self-injury as well as a significant rate of suicide.

For more information on borderline personality disorder from the National Institute of Mental Health, go here.

For more information about mental illness, see these pages:


Diagnosing Mental Illness

Links to More Information


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