Mental disorders (also called mental illnesses) refer to a wide range of mental health conditions — disorders that have an effect on your mood, thinking and behaviour.
Mental disorders (also called mental illnesses) refer to a wide range of mental health conditions — disorders that have an effect on your mood, thinking and behaviour. Mental health disorders can affect anyone regardless of race, age, sex or social status, and there is no shame in having a mental health disorder.
Examples of mental illness include
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What is depression?
It is normal to go through times when you feel sad, stressed or tired, especially if you are experiencing problems at home, school or work. But these feelings are different from the prolonged and severe negative feelings experienced because of depression. Depression is not caused by the usual stresses of life, and experiencing depression has nothing to do with how ‘good’ or ‘easy’ your life is. Globally it is estimated that 300 million people of all ages experience depression, and depression is currently the leading cause of disability worldwide.
It is important that people are educated about depression, and that we are able to speak openly and honestly about our experiences and struggles. Depression can affect anyone regardless of age, race, gender or socioeconomic status. The disorder can affect a person’s ability to carry out even the simplest everyday tasks, with sometimes devastating consequences for relationships with family and friends as well as the ability to function at school or work.
Symptoms of depression to look out for:
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The 2008 National Youth at Risk Survey, which focused on children and adolescents between grade 8 and 11, found that one-in-four youth (24.7%) reported feeling sad or hopeless, and just under 18% had made at least one suicide attempt. Only 37.2% of youth who reported feelings of sadness had sought treatment from a counsellor or doctor.
Depression is associated with increased risks of substance abuse, unemployment, early pregnancy, educational underachievement and suicide. Depression often remains under-reported by teens, with studies finding that it often takes several years before depressed adolescents and children receive appropriate treatment. This delay is in part because of stigma and fear of discrimination, and in part because parents and caretakers do not always take teens mental health complaints seriously enough. It is crucial that young people experiencing depression feel safe and comfortable to open up about their struggles, and are able to seek the correct help and treatment they need.
World-wide, suicide is now listed as the second leading cause of death among 15-29-year old’s, according to the World Health Organisation. People with depression are at increased risk for suicide, especially if the depression is left untreated.
Be aware of the warning signs that someone may be contemplating suicide:
If you suspect that someone you know is thinking about suicide, ask them about it and let them know you are concerned. Suicidal thoughts must be taken seriously and should never be ignored.
If you are suicidal and need help or are unsure how to help someone in need, contact one of the 24 hour crises lines below:
Research has shown that there are a number of factors that make a person more likely to develop depression; these include environmental factors such as negative childhood experiences like abuse or poverty, stressful life events such as the loss of a job, death of a loved one or exposure to physical violence. There is also a genetic and physiological component, as first degree relatives of someone with major depressive disorder are two to-four times more likely to develop the disorder.
The fact that you have a family who loves you, a big group of friends, that you are doing well in school or at work, or that your family may be financially well off do not mean that you are immune from developing depression, or that you do not ‘have the right’ to experience depression. Depression is a physical illness just like cancer or diabetes, and can affect anyone.
With the right support and treatment plan, many people are able to recover from depression and live healthy lives. There are a number of treatment options for depression. Determining which course of action is appropriate for each person should be done with the guidance of a mental health professional.
Some options include:
If you suspect that you or someone you know may be experiencing depression, seek the help of a mental health professional
What is anxiety?
Feeling anxious now and then is a normal part of life. You might feel anxious before taking a test, when faced with a problem at work, or before making an important decision. This temporary anxiety can sometimes help you to deal with a difficult situation, motivate you to study harder for an exam, or to maintain focus on an important task. For most people, anxiety is a harmless feeling that lasts for a while and goes away on its own.
However, there are a number of anxiety disorders that can impact the lives of young people, leading them to experience fear, shyness, and nervousness, and can cause them to avoid certain activities and places.
Anxiety disorders are one of the most common types of mental health problems which are experienced by people of all ages. They are mental health disorders that include extreme amounts of constant fear, nervousness, dread, or worry.
General symptoms of anxiety to look out for:
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Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is characterised by extreme worry about a number of different events – including past, present, and future events. Youth with GAD worry about a lot of issues, including past conversations or behaviours, upcoming events, school, work, family or relationship problems, their health, their performance in academics/work or sports, and world events. People with GAD may have difficulty controlling their extreme amounts of worry, and find that the anxiety interferes with their daily life.
Panic disorder leads to recurrent panic attacks and a persistent anxiety that an attack may lead to more panic attacks or physical or psychological harm. Young people who have panic disorder may avoid going out and engaging in activities out of fear that an attack may occur. Panic attacks include feelings of intense fear and unease, along with physical symptoms such as racing heart, difficulty breathing, dizziness, and nausea, as well as fearful thoughts.
Separation anxiety can be caused by unwillingness to be away from major attachment figures or from home. Usually the threat of having to separate from caregivers or from a physical space that feels safe leads to anxiety. While separation anxiety is seen mostly in children, it can also be experienced by teens.
Social phobia is the intense fear of embarrassment or humiliation in social situations, which may lead to shyness and a fear of doing or saying something in front of others. This may include fear of attending parties, speaking with figures in authority, or fear of speaking in public. While it is common for many teens to go through a period in which they are shy or fear social embarrassment, social phobia is more severe and can become very debilitating if untreated.
Specific phobia are intense, irrational fears of specific things or situations, for example a fear of spiders, or a fear of the dark. The fear experienced because of the situation or object is usually disproportionate to the actual threat posed. However someone with a specific phobia usually does not realise that their fears are unreasonable. Exposure to the feared object or situation leads to extreme distress, and may even cause a panic attack.
20% of young people in any given year experience a mental health problem, most commonly depression or anxiety – World Health Organisation (2019).
Anxiety disorders in young people are often the result of a number of factors working together. Some of the most common causes and risk factors for anxiety disorders in youth and adolescence may include:
Anxiety disorder can be very effectively treated. The first step is to see a mental health professional and to make sure there is no physical problem causing the symptoms. If an anxiety disorder is diagnosed, a mental health professional can work with you on the best treatment for your individual needs.
Although each anxiety disorder has unique characteristics, most people respond well to two types of treatment: psychotherapy, or ‘talk therapy’, and medications. These treatments can be given alone or in combination. Cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), a type of talk therapy, can help a person learn a different way of thinking, reacting and behaving to help feel less anxious. Medication alone will not cure an anxiety disorder, but it can be used to help to give significant relief from symptoms. The most commonly used medications are anti-anxiety medications (generally prescribed only for a short period of time) and antidepressants. The length of time you are prescribed medication will depend on your individual needs and diagnosis.
There are a number of things you can do to help yourself cope with the symptoms of anxiety and to make your treatment more effective. Many people find stress management techniques and meditation to be helpful. Support groups (in-person or online) can provide an opportunity to share experiences and coping strategies. Learning more about the specifics of your disorder and helping your family and friends to understand it better can also be helpful. Following a healthy lifestyle, eating a balanced diet, getting regular exercise, and enough sleep, and limiting your caffeine and alcohol consumption can also be helpful.
If you suspect that you or someone you know may be experiencing an anxiety disorder, seek the help of a mental health professional.
What is bipolar disorder?
Mood swings are often seen as a normal part of adolescence and growing up, however the changes in mood associated with bipolar disorder are not the same as the normal ups and downs every teenager or young adult goes through. In bipolar disorder the mood swings are more extreme and are accompanied by changes in sleep patterns, energy levels, and the ability to think clearly. Bipolar symptoms can affect your performance at school or work, as well as relationships with friends and family members.
In Bipolar disorder, your mood cycles between periods of mania and periods of either normal mood or depression. These cycles (sometimes called episodes) of depression and mania may be daily, monthly, or even years apart.
The three most common types of bipolar disorder are:
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Bipolar symptoms usually start between the ages of 15 and 19 years. This is why it is important for young people, parents and teachers to be aware of the symptoms and signs to look out for, so that affected youth are able to receive treatment as soon as possible.
If untreated bipolar disorder can be extremely serious, and can lead to risky behaviour such as substance use, reckless sexual behaviour, and self-harm or suicide. The symptoms may also make it impossible for a young person to complete their education or to be employed. However, with treatment people with bipolar disorder are able to live happy and healthy lives.
Studies have shown that there are a number of different factors that can lead to the development of bipolar disorder. Bipolar disorder tends to run in families. Children with a parent or sibling who has bipolar disorder are much more likely to develop the illness, compared with children who do not have a family history of the disorder. However, having a family history of bipolar disorder does not guarantee that you will develop the disorder, and people without any known family history of the disorder can also develop the illness.
Treatment is available for even the most severe forms of bipolar disorder, and can help you to gain better control of your mood swings and other bipolar symptoms. After you have been diagnosed as having bipolar disorder by a mental health professional, they will work with you to create a treatment plan that best suits your individual needs. An effective treatment plan usually includes a combination of medication and psychotherapy (also called ‘talk therapy’). It is important to understand that bipolar disorder is a lifelong illness.
Different types of medications can help control symptoms of bipolar disorder, and you may need to try several different medications before finding the ones that work best for you. Medications generally used to treat bipolar disorder include mood stabilisers, antipsychotics, and antidepressants.
While remaining treatment compliant (taking your medication as prescribed by your doctor), you may be symptom free. But this does not mean that you can stop taking the medication! It is the medication that is helping to keep your moods stable, and without it you will experience depression or mania again.
Some people with bipolar disorder turn to alcohol and drugs because they feel temporarily better when they’re high. But substance abuse can make the symptoms of bipolar disorder worse. It also makes the condition harder for doctors to diagnose and treat.
What is schizophrenia?
Schizophrenia is still one of the most misunderstood mental illnesses, with many false ideas and stigma surrounding the disorder. It is an illness of the brain that affects how a person perceives the world, thinks, and behaves. Having schizophrenia does not mean that you have multiple personalities.
Many people also mistakenly believe that people with schizophrenia are violent and dangerous, but this is not true. In fact, people with psychotic disorders like schizophrenia are much more likely to be the victim of a violent crime than to commit one. Psychosis means ‘to break from reality’, and that’s exactly what schizophrenia is – a mental disorder that causes the individual to have difficulty distinguishing what is real from what is not. Although schizophrenia is a psychotic illness, psychosis can also occur in other mental disorders, such as: bipolar disorder, depression, or as a result of taking drugs or alcohol.
General symptoms of schizophrenia to look out for:
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In the case of schizophrenia, other people might notice symptoms before you do, because the condition means you don’t always know what’s real. Many young people with schizophrenia will demonstrate a slow and gradual onset of the illness, with the symptoms growing in intensity over a period of months.
It’s important to understand that believing or sensing something that other people do not is not always a sign of schizophrenia. We can all believe things that other people do not – for example believing in a higher power, or that ghosts exist. Age-appropriate or culturally-appropriate beliefs are not considered delusions. The same is true for hallucinations. A small child’s imaginary friend is not a hallucination, as it is seen as an age-appropriate display of imagination. A hallucination is when you experience something through your senses (sound, sight, smell) that is not there. Delusions and hallucinations are diagnosed when people believe or sense something despite evidence that the belief or sensory perception does not exist.
Schizophrenia typically begins in late adolescence or early adulthood. As a result of the disorders severe symptoms, it may prevent affected young people from completing their education or finding employment if they do not receive the correct treatment
The symptoms of schizophrenia can have a very negative affect on a young person’s ability to function at school or work, as well as their relationships with family and friends. If a person is experiencing psychosis and is not aware of what is going on around them, they may also place themselves in dangerous situations. This is why it is important that they are diagnosed by a mental health professional as soon as possible, and can begin to receive the correct treatment.
As with most mental disorders, there are a number of possible factors that could lead to someone developing schizophrenia. On a physical level schizophrenia has been is linked to structural and functional abnormalities in the brain. The regions of the brain that control and coordinate thinking, perceptions and behaviours are not functioning properly, making it difficult for the affected person to filter and process information. Schizophrenia can have a genetic component, and having a close relative with the disorder may increase a person’s chances of developing it, although this is not true in all cases. Recent research has also suggested that significant use of marijuana may trigger the onset of schizophrenia in youth who are at risk for the illness. Young people with immediate family member with schizophrenia should always avoid using marijuana or other drugs.
There are a number of treatment options for schizophrenia. Once a diagnosis has been made by a mental health professional, they will work with you to determine which course of action is appropriate for your individual case. Early diagnosis of the disorder, together with appropriate treatment is very important for reducing the impact of schizophrenia on the individual. During severe episodes of psychosis, a person with schizophrenia may need to be hospitalised in order for them to stabilise. They should leave the hospital with a treatment plan that will minimise their symptoms and help them to have a good quality of life.
What are eating disorders?
Eating disorders, including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder, are mental disorders that involve extreme disturbances in eating behaviour and the person’s perception of their body and weight. Eating disorders often co-occur with other mental disorders, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety disorder, depression, substance abuse, or the person may engage in self-harming behaviour. It is important to identify and address these co-occurring disorders if they are present. Eating disorders can affect both men and women, and it is important that young men also receive screening and care for eating disorders if necessary.
If you or someone you know has an eating disorder, you can contact Eating Disorders South Africa for more information and help in finding treatment.
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Anorexia nervosa is an eating disorder where you worry about your weight, want to lose weight and eat less and less food in an attempt to lose weight. If untreated, anorexia has the potential to become life-threatening. Anorexia has the highest death rate of any mental disorder, and without treatment, up to 20% of people with a serious eating disorder will die.
General symptoms of anorexia:
Bulimia nervosa is an eating disorder where you get into a cycle of overeating and then making yourself sick to try to control your weight. People who have bulimia typically appear to be of normal weight or overweight, rather than being extremely thin.
General symptoms of bulimia:
Binge eating disorder is a common eating disorder where you frequently eat large amounts of food while feeling powerless to stop and extremely distressed during or after eating. During a binge, you may eat even when you’re not hungry and continue eating long after you’re full. Unlike in bulimia, however, there are no regular attempts to ‘correct’ for the binges through vomiting, fasting, or over-exercising.
General symptoms of binge eating disorder:
Eating disorders can affect people of all ages; however the onset of eating disorders typically occurs during pre-adolescence or adolescence. Puberty is a time when many young people feel self-conscious about their physical appearance, and studies have shown that for many teenagers the onset of their eating disorder involved comments or teasing by peers or family members, usually about appearance.
Feeling shame, or being shamed, based on size or physical appearance can be powerful contributors to a teenager developing an eating disorder. Eating disorders affect millions of adolescents and young adults around the world. Given the serious medical complications that may result from eating disorders, it is very important to identify, diagnose and treat them as early as possible. If untreated, eating disorders may lead to serious health complications, hospitalisation, and even death.
Eating disorders are complex disorders, and their development is usually influenced by a number of factors. These include:
Eating disorders can be treated. The first step is to see a mental health professional who will be able to make a formal diagnosis. Based on the diagnosis and your individual needs, a treatment plan will then be developed.
Treatment for eating disorders usually involves a multidisciplinary approach, and could include medical supervision, individual therapy, family therapy, and nutritional rehabilitation to restore health and body weight and change behaviours related to eating and exercise.
Medication may be required if certain mental disorders are also present; most commonly depression and anxiety disorders. The young person may have obsessive-compulsive disorder or tendencies, and may also suffer from trauma or substance abuse, or engage in self-harming behaviour. It is important that eating disorder treatment works to identify and address these co-occurring disorders. Treatment helps the person recovering from an eating disorder create a healthier relationship with food and their bodies.