Understanding Mental Illness by Dr. Prannay Gulati (MBBS, MD Psychiatry, Ex PGI)

Our history has many accounts of events suggesting people suffering from abnormalities of thought, behaviour, emotions etc. Ancient Egyptian, Greek, Chinese cultures have noting of people who were suffering from some form of mental disorder. In Indian mythology, Ramayana and Mahabharat also contain fictional description of anxiety and depressed states. Origin and causes of mental disorders fluctuated between many areas, be it natural forces to witchcraft to the weakness of character; and so did perception of people towards those suffering from these ailments. Advancement of modern science has provided us with more biological causation for many of these disorders but we as a society are yet to shed the load of our history.




Stigma against people suffering from mental health disorders, including their relatives is widespread. It affects individuals’ right from the nascent stages of progress of mental health disorders to treatment and outcome. The very idea that one can suffer from some form of mental health issue gives shudders to everyone.

As per the World Health Organization, approximately one in every five persons will suffer from some form of mental health disorder during their lifetime. This is an alarming number considering that it can affect anyone, irrespective of age, gender, social status or education. Are we ready to tackle these humongous numbers? Well, answer is a grim ‘No’. There are various reasons for the same, but adverse attitude towards such ailments stands out amongst all. Lack of proper knowledge of what constitutes mental health issues and what it takes to get treated, fuels such adverse attitude. So my endeavour will be to give basic knowledge about mental health disorders, so that we can take the first step to tackle this epidemic.

The first question that comes to mind is, “What is mental illness?”

Mental illness is a disease that disrupts a person’s thoughts, feelings and behaviour, to the extent that their social integration becomes problematic, and their ability to function and their relationships become compromised. The key element of mental illness is the suffering that is often associated with it.

How does mental illness manifest itself?

Mental illness has many faces. The term “mental illness” refers to a wide variety of disorders, each with its own distinctive features. Often, it is the affected person’s loved ones that first notice certain peculiar signs and behaviour. Common symptoms are lack of sleep, anxiety, depressed mood, lack of concentration, disturbed behaviour, taking too much alcohol, smoking, opioid use etc.

How common is mental illness?

Statistics show that one in every five persons in world will experience a mental health problem at one point in their life! When all is well, we underestimate the importance of being mentally healthy. We often tell ourselves that mental illness only affects others. And yet, no person is immune to mental illness. We all likely know someone who has experienced a mental illness at some point. Yet there are still many hurtful attitudes around mental illnesses that fuel stigma and discrimination and make it harder to reach out for help. The prime reason for it is lack of knowledge of the facts and poor understanding.

A few misconceptions regarding mental illnesses-

Many people hesitate to get help because they fear being judged, misunderstood or labeled. Moreover, there are a great number of preconceived notions held by the general population regarding mental illness. Here are a few examples:

Myth: Mental disorders are not true illnesses but are caused by a weakness in character.

Fact: Disorders of the brain are no less medical conditions than disorders of the heart or kidneys. Mental disorders are caused by biological, psychological and social factors. Research has shown genetic and biological factors are associated with various mental health disorders.

Myth: Recovery from mental illness is not possible.

Fact: Long-term research has shown that the majority of people with mental illness show genuine improvement over time and lead stable lives.

Myth: Mentally ill and mentally retarded individuals are dangerous or violent.

Fact: The vast majority of these individuals are not dangerous or violent. Statistics show that violence in people who have a brain disorder is not much higher than in the general population.

Myth: Children can’t have a mental illness like depression. Those are adult problems

Fact: Even children can experience mental illnesses. Mental illnesses may look different in children than in adults, but they are a real concern. Additionally, children suffer from problems that are specifically detected during childhood, like Autism, Attention Deficit & Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Mental Retardation, etc.

These myths—and many more—exclude people with mental illnesses from our communities and create barriers to well-being. If we want to reduce the impact of mental illnesses on our communities, we need to learn the facts and start with our own assumptions and behaviours.

How to manage mental illness?

The first step is accurate diagnosis, for which a thorough evaluation must be carried out by a Psychiatrist. (Psychiatrists are the healthcare professionals best suited to identify and treat mental illness) Too often, mental illnesses are detected late. And yet, the sooner the problem is treated, the better the results! Do not neglect or hesitate to consult a Psychiatrist as soon as possible if you or a loved one appears to be developing signs of a mental illness.

After diagnosis, treatment and ongoing medical monitoring is advisable in most cases. There are a number of different treatment options, like medication, psychotherapy, rehabilitation, behavioral therapy, etc. The type of therapy and monitoring needed is determined on a case-by-case basis, according to the needs and situation of each person. Support from family and friends are must when trying to take control of a mental illness as it helps in faster recovery and prevent relapse in future.

People must obtain knowledge about the facts about their illness from their treating doctors as most of the existing conceptions and notions will be flawed. This way, they will ensure greater chances of recovery with least amount of suffering.

To think that spreading awareness and having knowledge about mental illness will solve all the problems will be too simplistic and reductionist. Stigma is a very complex problem. We are standing at the crossroad; choosing a path which makes lives for those with mental illness better will be a great gift to mankind.

“Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of, but stigma and bias shame us all”

  • Bill Clinton 





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