Psychiatric Disorders

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS

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:

  • Adjustment disorders

  • Anxiety disorders

  • Delirium, dementia, amnestic, and other cognitive disorders

  • Disorders usually first diagnosed in infancy, childhood or adolescence, such as learning disorders or communication disorders

  • Dissociative disorders

  • Eating disorders

  • Factitious disorders

  • Impulse-control disorders

  • Mental disorders due to a general medical condition

  • Mood disorders

  • Other conditions of clinical importance

  • Personality disorders

  • Schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders

  • Sexual and gender identity disorders

  • Sleep disorders

  • Somatoform disorders

  • Substance-related 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

  • Hallucinations

  • 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.

What are the risk factors 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:

  • Difficult temperament

  • 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

  • Substance abuse

  • 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:

  • Educational support

  • Family counseling

  • Group therapy

  • Individual counseling or cognitive-behavioral therapy

  • Medications

  • Vocational (job) training and support

Complementary treatments

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:

  • Acupuncture

  • Biofeedback

  • Hypnosis

  • Massage therapy

  • Nutritional dietary supplements, herbal remedies, tea beverages, and similar products

  • Yoga

What are the potential complications of psychiatric disorders?

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

  • Disability

  • Poor quality of life

  • Social isolation

  • Suicidal thoughts or actions

  • Violent thoughts or actions toward others

  • Worsening of your condition

Was this helpful?
  1. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR). 4th ed., text revision. Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Association; 2000:13-26.
  2. Information about Mental Illness and the Brain. National Institute of Mental Health.
  3. Mental Disorders. Medline Plus, a service of the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health.
  4. Mental Health: A Report of the Surgeon General. U.S. Public Health Service.
  5. Neuroleptic malignant syndrome. The Merck Manuals Online Medical Library.
  6. Warning Signs of Major Mental Illness. American Psychiatric Association.
  7. Mental Illnesses. National Alliance on Mental Illness.
  8. Domino FJ (Ed.) Five Minute Clinical Consult. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2013.
  9. Serretti A, Fabbri C. Shared genetics among major psychiatric disorders. Lancet 2013; 381:1339.
Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Nov 30
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.