To determine a diagnosis and check for related complications, you may have:
- A physical exam. Your doctor will try to rule out physical problems that could cause your symptoms.
- Lab tests. These may include, for example, a check of your thyroid function or a screening for alcohol and drugs.
- A psychological evaluation. A doctor or mental health professional talks to you about your symptoms, thoughts, feelings and behavior patterns. You may be asked to fill out a questionnaire to help answer these questions.
Determining which mental illness you have
Sometimes it's difficult to find out which mental illness may be causing your symptoms. But taking the time and effort to get an accurate diagnosis will help determine the appropriate treatment. The more information you have, the more you will be prepared to work with your mental health professional in understanding what your symptoms may represent.
The defining symptoms for each mental illness are detailed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), published by the American Psychiatric Association. This manual is used by mental health professionals to diagnose mental conditions and by insurance companies to reimburse for treatment.
Classes of mental illness
The main classes of mental illness are:
- Neurodevelopmental disorders. This class covers a wide range of problems that usually begin in infancy or childhood, often before the child begins grade school. Examples include autism spectrum disorder, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and learning disorders.
- Schizophrenia spectrum and other psychotic disorders. Psychotic disorders cause detachment from reality — such as delusions, hallucinations, and disorganized thinking and speech. The most notable example is schizophrenia, although other classes of disorders can be associated with detachment from reality at times.
- Bipolar and related disorders. This class includes disorders with alternating episodes of mania — periods of excessive activity, energy and excitement — and depression.
- Depressive disorders. These include disorders that affect how you feel emotionally, such as the level of sadness and happiness, and they can disrupt your ability to function. Examples include major depressive disorder and premenstrual dysphoric disorder.
- Anxiety disorders. Anxiety is an emotion characterized by the anticipation of future danger or misfortune, along with excessive worrying. It can include behavior aimed at avoiding situations that cause anxiety. This class includes generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder and phobias.
- Obsessive-compulsive and related disorders. These disorders involve preoccupations or obsessions and repetitive thoughts and actions. Examples include obsessive-compulsive disorder, hoarding disorder and hair-pulling disorder (trichotillomania).
- Trauma- and stressor-related disorders. These are adjustment disorders in which a person has trouble coping during or after a stressful life event. Examples include post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and acute stress disorder.
- Dissociative disorders. These are disorders in which your sense of self is disrupted, such as with dissociative identity disorder and dissociative amnesia.
- Somatic symptom and related disorders. A person with one of these disorders may have physical symptoms that cause major emotional distress and problems functioning. There may or may not be another diagnosed medical condition associated with these symptoms, but the reaction to the symptoms is not normal. The disorders include somatic symptom disorder, illness anxiety disorder and factitious disorder.
- Feeding and eating disorders. These disorders include disturbances related to eating that impact nutrition and health, such as anorexia nervosa and binge-eating disorder.
- Elimination disorders. These disorders relate to the inappropriate elimination of urine or stool by accident or on purpose. Bed-wetting (enuresis) is an example.
- Sleep-wake disorders. These are disorders of sleep severe enough to require clinical attention, such as insomnia, sleep apnea and restless legs syndrome.
- Sexual dysfunctions. These include disorders of sexual response, such as premature ejaculation and female orgasmic disorder.
- Gender dysphoria. This refers to the distress that accompanies a person's stated desire to be another gender.
- Disruptive, impulse-control and conduct disorders. These disorders include problems with emotional and behavioral self-control, such as kleptomania or intermittent explosive disorder.
- Substance-related and addictive disorders. These include problems associated with the excessive use of alcohol, caffeine, tobacco and drugs. This class also includes gambling disorder.
- Neurocognitive disorders. Neurocognitive disorders affect your ability to think and reason. These acquired (rather than developmental) cognitive problems include delirium, as well as neurocognitive disorders due to conditions or diseases such as traumatic brain injury or Alzheimer's disease.
- Personality disorders. A personality disorder involves a lasting pattern of emotional instability and unhealthy behavior that causes problems in your life and relationships. Examples include borderline, antisocial and narcissistic personality disorders.
- Paraphilic disorders. These disorders include sexual interest that causes personal distress or impairment or causes potential or actual harm to another person. Examples are sexual sadism disorder, voyeuristic disorder and pedophilic disorder.
- Other mental disorders. This class includes mental disorders that are due to other medical conditions or that don't meet the full criteria for one of the above disorders.
Your treatment depends on the type of mental illness you have, its severity and what works best for you. In many cases, a combination of treatments works best.
If you have a mild mental illness with well-controlled symptoms, treatment from your primary care provider may be sufficient. However, often a team approach is appropriate to make sure all your psychiatric, medical and social needs are met. This is especially important for severe mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia.
Your treatment team
Your treatment team may include your:
- Family or primary care doctor
- Nurse practitioner
- Physician assistant
- Psychiatrist, a medical doctor who diagnoses and treats mental illnesses
- Psychotherapist, such as a psychologist or a licensed counselor
- Social worker
- Family members
Although psychiatric medications don't cure mental illness, they can often significantly improve symptoms. Psychiatric medications can also help make other treatments, such as psychotherapy, more effective. The best medications for you will depend on your particular situation and how your body responds to the medication.
Some of the most commonly used classes of prescription psychiatric medications include:
- Antidepressants. Antidepressants are used to treat depression, anxiety and sometimes other conditions. They can help improve symptoms such as sadness, hopelessness, lack of energy, difficulty concentrating and lack of interest in activities. Antidepressants are not addictive and do not cause dependency.
- Anti-anxiety medications. These drugs are used to treat anxiety disorders, such as generalized anxiety disorder or panic disorder. They may also help reduce agitation and insomnia. Long-term anti-anxiety drugs typically are antidepressants that also work for anxiety. Fast-acting anti-anxiety drugs help with short-term relief, but they also have the potential to cause dependency, so ideally they'd be used short term.
- Mood-stabilizing medications. Mood stabilizers are most commonly used to treat bipolar disorders, which involves alternating episodes of mania and depression. Sometimes mood stabilizers are used with antidepressants to treat depression.
- Antipsychotic medications. Antipsychotic drugs are typically used to treat psychotic disorders, such as schizophrenia. Antipsychotic medications may also be used to treat bipolar disorders or used with antidepressants to treat depression.
Psychotherapy, also called talk therapy, involves talking about your condition and related issues with a mental health professional. During psychotherapy, you learn about your condition and your moods, feelings, thoughts and behavior. With the insights and knowledge you gain, you can learn coping and stress management skills.
There are many types of psychotherapy, each with its own approach to improving your mental well-being. Psychotherapy often can be successfully completed in a few months, but in some cases, long-term treatment may be needed. It can take place one-on-one, in a group or with family members.
When choosing a therapist, you should feel comfortable and be confident that he or she is capable of listening and hearing what you have to say. Also, it's important that your therapist understands the life journey that has helped shape who you are and how you live in the world.
Brain-stimulation treatments are sometimes used for depression and other mental health disorders. They're generally reserved for situations in which medications and psychotherapy haven't worked. They include electroconvulsive therapy, repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation, deep brain stimulation and vagus nerve stimulation.
Make sure you understand all the risks and benefits of any recommended treatment.
Hospital and residential treatment programs
Sometimes mental illness becomes so severe that you need care in a psychiatric hospital. This is generally recommended when you can't care for yourself properly or when you're in immediate danger of harming yourself or someone else.
Options include 24-hour inpatient care, partial or day hospitalization, or residential treatment, which offers a temporary supportive place to live. Another option may be intensive outpatient treatment.
Substance misuse treatment
Problems with substance use commonly occur along with mental illness. Often it interferes with treatment and worsens mental illness. If you can't stop using drugs or alcohol on your own, you need treatment. Talk to your doctor about treatment options.
Participating in your own care
Working together, you and your primary care provider or mental health professional can decide which treatment may be best, depending on your symptoms and their severity, your personal preferences, medication side effects, and other factors. In some cases, a mental illness may be so severe that a doctor or loved one may need to guide your care until you're well enough to participate in decision-making.
Lifestyle and home remedies
In most cases, a mental illness won't get better if you try to treat it on your own without professional care. But you can do some things for yourself that will build on your treatment plan:
- Stick to your treatment plan. Don't skip therapy sessions. Even if you're feeling better, don't skip your medications. If you stop, symptoms may come back. And you could have withdrawal-like symptoms if you stop a medication too suddenly. If you have bothersome drug side effects or other problems with treatment, talk to your doctor before making changes.
- Avoid alcohol and drug use. Using alcohol or recreational drugs can make it difficult to treat a mental illness. If you're addicted, quitting can be a real challenge. If you can't quit on your own, see your doctor or find a support group to help you.
- Stay active. Exercise can help you manage symptoms of depression, stress and anxiety. Physical activity can also counteract the effects of some psychiatric medications that may cause weight gain. Consider walking, swimming, gardening or any form of physical activity that you enjoy. Even light physical activity can make a difference.
- Make healthy choices. Maintaining a regular schedule that includes sufficient sleep, healthy eating and regular physical activity are important to your mental health.
- Don't make important decisions when your symptoms are severe. Avoid decision-making when you're in the depth of mental illness symptoms, since you may not be thinking clearly.
- Determine priorities. You may reduce the impact of your mental illness by managing time and energy. Cut back on obligations when necessary and set reasonable goals. Give yourself permission to do less when symptoms are worse. You may find it helpful to make a list of daily tasks or use a planner to structure your time and stay organized.
- Learn to adopt a positive attitude. Focusing on the positive things in your life can make your life better and may even improve your health. Try to accept changes when they occur, and keep problems in perspective. Stress management techniques, including relaxation methods, may help.
Coping and support
Coping with a mental illness is challenging. Talk to your doctor or therapist about improving your coping skills, and consider these tips:
- Learn about your mental illness. Your doctor or therapist can provide you with information or may recommend classes, books or websites. Include your family, too — this can help the people who care about you understand what you're going through and learn how they can help.
- Join a support group. Connecting with others facing similar challenges may help you cope. Support groups for mental illness are available in many communities and online. One good place to start is the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
- Stay connected with friends and family. Try to participate in social activities, and get together with family or friends regularly. Ask for help when you need it, and be upfront with your loved ones about how you're doing.
- Keep a journal. Or jot down brief thoughts or record symptoms on a smartphone app. Keeping track of your personal life and sharing information with your therapist can help you identify what triggers or improves your symptoms. It's also a healthy way to explore and express pain, anger, fear and other emotions.
Preparing for your appointment
Whether you schedule an appointment with your primary care provider to talk about mental health concerns or you're referred to a mental health professional, such as a psychiatrist or psychologist, take steps to prepare for your appointment.
If possible, take a family member or friend along. Someone who has known you for a long time may be able to share important information, with your permission.
What you can do
Before your appointment, make a list of:
- Any symptoms you or people close to you have noticed, and for how long
- Key personal information, including traumatic events in your past and any current, major stressors
- Your medical information, including other physical or mental health conditions
- Any medications, vitamins, herbal products or other supplements you take, and their dosages
- Questions to ask your doctor or mental health professional
Questions to ask may include:
- What type of mental illness might I have?
- Why can't I get over mental illness on my own?
- How do you treat my type of mental illness?
- Will talk therapy help?
- Are there medications that might help?
- How long will treatment take?
- What can I do to help myself?
- Do you have any brochures or other printed material that I can have?
- What websites do you recommend?
Don't hesitate to ask any other questions during your appointment.
What to expect from your doctor
During your appointment, your doctor or mental health professional is likely to ask you questions about your mood, thoughts and behavior, such as:
- When did you first notice symptoms?
- How is your daily life affected by your symptoms?
- What treatment, if any, have you had for mental illness?
- What have you tried on your own to feel better or control your symptoms?
- What things make you feel worse?
- Have family members or friends commented on your mood or behavior?
- Do you have blood relatives with a mental illness?
- What do you hope to gain from treatment?
- What medications or over-the-counter herbs and supplements do you take?
- Do you drink alcohol or use recreational drugs?
Your doctor or mental health professional will ask additional questions based on your responses, symptoms and needs. Preparing and anticipating questions will help you make the most of your time with the doctor.