What are psychiatric disorders?
The term psychiatric disorder means a mental disorder or illness that interferes with the way a person behaves, interacts with others, and functions in daily life. Psychiatric disorders are also sometimes known as mental health disorders or mental health illnesses. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) of Mental Disorders, published by the American Psychiatric Association, classifies psychiatric disorders. The latest version, DSM-IV-TR, lists the following categories of mental disorders:
Delirium, dementia, amnestic, and other cognitive disorders
Disorders usually first diagnosed in infancy, childhood or adolescence, such as learning disorders or communication disorders
Mental disorders due to a general medical condition
Other conditions of clinical importance
Schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders
Sexual and gender identity disorders
Psychiatric disorders are very common in the United States. In fact, one-fifth of the American population suffers from some sort of mental disorder during any given year, according to the American Psychiatric Association (Source: APA). Contrary to past views, most people with mental disorders are rarely violent and do not need to be institutionalized.
Shame, fear, denial, and other factors may prevent people with psychiatric disorders from seeking help. However, early treatment offers the best chance of regaining your mental health and preventing a disabling disorder.
Mental health experts do not know for certain the underlying causes of psychiatric disorders. They are likely a combination of genetic factors and environmental factors that come together and trigger a disorder. Education about these factors can be part of an overall treatment plan for psychiatric disorders.
In some cases, people with psychiatric disorders may pose a threat to themselves or others. It is also possible to have potentially life-threatening side effects from medications used to treat psychiatric disorders. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have serious symptoms, such as severe changes in mood, thoughts or behavior; thoughts about hurting yourself or others; or changes in mental status (delirium, agitation and lethargy). Other symptoms include severe muscle rigidity, severe tremor, abnormal movements that you cannot control, hyperthermia (high body temperature), fast or irregular heart rate, and fast breathing.
Seek prompt medical care if you are being treated for a psychiatric disorder but symptoms recur or are persistent.
What are the symptoms of psychiatric disorders?
Symptoms of psychiatric disorders rarely occur suddenly. In most cases, symptoms develop over time. Close friends and family members of people with psychiatric disorders may realize that something is wrong or not quite right before the disorder itself is recognized. Recognizing early warning signs and getting help may prevent the disorder from becoming serious and may even save a life.
Common symptoms or early warning signs of psychiatric disorders
According to the American Psychiatric Association, experiencing several of the symptoms listed here may mean that a psychiatric disorder is developing (Source: APA). Contact a mental health provider for proper evaluation if the following symptoms are present:
Apathy or loss of initiative or desire to participate in any activity that was previously enjoyable including sex
Difficulties with concentration, memory, or logical thought and speech. These problems are hard to explain and are not caused by medical or physical conditions, such as hypothyroidism, menopause or stroke.
Dramatic sleep and appetite changes
Fear or suspiciousness of others or a persistent, strong nervous feeling
Heightened sensitivity to sights, sounds, smells or touch, or avoidance of over-stimulating situations
Illogical thinking typical of childhood but in an adult
Rapid or dramatic shifts in feelings or mood swings
Recent social withdrawal or loss of interest in others
Sense of unreality or a feeling of being disconnected from yourself or your surroundings
Uncharacteristic or peculiar behavior
Unusual drop in functioning, such as problems at school or work, quitting sports, failing in school, difficulty performing familiar tasks, or deterioration in personal hygiene
Unusual or exaggerated beliefs about personal powers to understand meanings or influence events
Symptoms that might indicate a serious or life-threatening condition
In some cases, people with psychiatric disorders may pose a threat to themselves or others. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have the following serious symptoms:
Changes in mental status, such as delirium or extreme agitation
Disordered thoughts or speech
Irrational beliefs (delusions) or loss of touch with reality
Serious disturbances in perceptions (hallucinations)
Severe changes in mood, thoughts or behavior
Suicidal, threatening or violent actions or behavior
Thoughts or threats to hurt oneself or others
Symptoms that might indicate a serious or life-threatening drug reaction
In rare cases, people who take certain antipsychotic drugs to treat some psychiatric disorders may have a serious and potentially life-threatening drug side effect (adverse event) called neuroleptic malignant syndrome. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any of these life-threatening symptoms:
Abnormal, uncontrollable movements (chorea)
Changes in mental status, such as extreme agitation, delirium, lethargy or unresponsiveness
Fast or irregular heart beat
Fast or shallow breathing
High body temperature (hyperthermia)
Involuntary muscle contractions that lead to repetitive twisting movements (dystonia)
Severe muscle rigidity with or without tremor
What causes psychiatric disorder
The exact cause of most psychiatric disorders in not known. Mental health experts believe that psychiatric disorders result from a combination of genetic or inherited dispositions and a triggering event. Triggering events may include environmental factors, stresses of various kinds, and even physical health problems. The line between physical health and mental health is becoming more blurred as research continues in the area of finding causes for psychiatric disorders.
A number of factors are thought to increase your chances of developing a psychiatric disorder. However, not everyone with risk factors will develop a psychiatric disorder. Common risk factors are:
External or environmental factors, such as poverty, poor nutrition, overcrowding, abuse, or neglect
Genetic or inherited predisposition such as having a parent with a psychiatric disorder
Low birth weight
Lower socioeconomic status
Prenatal exposure to alcohol, illegal drugs, tobacco, and certain viruses and toxins
Severe parental discord
Trauma, either physical or mental
Unsatisfactory relationships, especially within the family
Reducing your risk of psychiatric disorders
If you have or are at risk of developing a psychiatric disorder, leading a healthy lifestyle is important. This includes learning to use stress management techniques, eating a balanced diet, not using drugs or drinking to excess, getting adequate exercise and sleep, and getting regular medical care.
How are psychiatric disorders treated?
The first step in treating psychiatric disorders is getting a complete physical examination to rule out any physical diseases or conditions that may be causing symptoms. This may include extensive testing and follow-up appointments.
Treatment of psychiatric disorders will depend on the specific disorder. Early treatment may help prevent a lifelong, disabling disorder in many cases. Therefore, it is important to recognize the early warning signs of mental illness and seek help.
Early treatment of psychiatric disorders
If unusual behaviors and other symptoms are recognized and diagnosed, you may be referred for initial treatment. Initial treatment may include:
Close monitoring or follow-up for conditions requiring more intensive treatment
Education about mental illness
Mental health screening or evaluation by a trained mental health provider
Supportive counseling about daily life and stress management techniques or strategies
Family support is vital at this point in treatment. This is especially true if a person has not yet accepted the need for further treatment of their condition.
Comprehensive treatments for psychiatric disorders
Treatment of psychiatric disorders is highly individualized and will depend on the specific disorder and other factors. Comprehensive treatment may include:
Individual counseling or cognitive-behavioral therapy
Vocational (job) training and support
Some complementary treatments may help some people to better deal with psychiatric disorders. These treatments, sometimes referred to as alternative therapies, are used in conjunction with traditional medical treatments. Complementary treatments are not meant to substitute for traditional medical care. Be sure to notify your doctor if you are consuming nutritional supplements or homeopathic (nonprescription) remedies as they may interact with the prescribed medical therapy.
Complementary treatments may include:
Nutritional dietary supplements, herbal remedies, tea beverages, and similar products
Complications of untreated or poorly controlled psychiatric disorders can be serious and even life threatening. You can best treat mental illness and lower your risk of complications, or delay the development of complications, by following the treatment plan you and your healthcare professional design specifically for you. Complications of psychiatric disorders may include:
Adverse effects of treatment
Difficulties at home, work or school and in relationships
Difficulty functioning or caring for yourself
Poor quality of life
Suicidal thoughts or actions
Violent thoughts or actions toward others
Worsening of your condition