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Mental Illness and Psychology

The term mental illness is quite broad with multiple connotations. Individuals who suffer from “mental illness” are often stigmatized and denigrated for their difficulties and struggles. According to the National Alliance of the Mentally Ill (NAMI), the term mental illness can be defined as a medical condition that disrupts a person’s thinking, feeling, mood, ability to relate to others and daily functioning. Still other sources define mental illness as a “psychiatric disorder, that is a mental or behavioral pattern or anomaly that causes either suffering or an impaired ability to function in ordinary life (disability), and which is not developmentally or socially normative. Mental disorders are generally defined by a combination of how a person feels, acts, thinks or perceives”. The NAMI definition is a very important definition in that a mental illness has an organic and genetic etiology, similar to diabetes or heart disease.(1) However, for someone who suffers from mental illness the changes in behaviors, perception, and thinking must also affect one’s functioning. This is critical as we all have had times when we have been sad, extremely happy, or made inappropriate decisions. However, when those changes begin to consume the individual to the point of affecting one’s functioning and those around him/her then these changes may be defined as a mental illness.

Worried womanUnfortunately, science has not advanced in the domain of mental illness as it has in other medical specialties. Psychiatrists, psychologists, and other mental health professionals do not have the means of laboratory tests or imaging to diagnose illness, as compared to other specialties in healthcare. Consequently, the diagnosis of a mental illness idealy utilizes a team of professionals that has been in contact with the patient over time.
The diagnosis and evaluation of an individual who suffers from mental illness can be very elusive which may require the collaborative effort of more than one health care professional. Psychologists and psychiatrists have been formally trained in how to understand an individual’s symptoms, to narrow the diagnostic focus of the underlying disorder. This understanding of the presenting symptoms is usually not only provided by the patient alone but also other family members or friends. Unfortunately, the patient alone may not fully understand his/her current symptoms as they sometimes lack insight into their symptoms and impact on their functioning. It is important to note that the etiology of mental illnesses can be due to various sources. Within the medical community, it is now well understood that genetics play an important role across various mental illnesses from psychotic disorders, to mood disorders, and even substance dependence. However, no mental illness is 100% genetic as the environment also plays a significant role. In regards to environment, many mental illnesses can also be caused by other organic insults such as traumatic brain injuries, brain masses/tumors, or neurodegenerative illnesses (such as Alzheimers Dementia) that may induce changes in mood or even psychosis (i.e. suffer from hallucinations or delusions).

Psychologist having session with her patient in her private consulting roomThe modalities of treatment for mental illness are not just limited to pharmacological intervention, but may also include a multitude of psychotherapies. Psychologists, psychiatrists, and primary care physicians usually rely on each other to provide a continuity of care. Many studies across multiple mental illnesses have found that therapy in concordance with pharmacological treatment is more effective compared to just medication alone.(2)  Having a knowledgeable psychologist as part of the healthcare team provides a breadth of treatment that best treats the disorder. The psychologist helps to change behavior by identifying and working with the individual’s cognitive distortions. It’s these distortions that disrupt the individual’s functionality. Understanding the symptoms can help improve function.

Whatever the treatment may be, the patient must trusts his/her healthcare team members with complex and personal information. CLICK HERE, to find a trusted Medical Fitness Network psychologist.