Mental Disorder Research Articles & Resources

Leigh Morgan
Leigh Morgan
Last updated:
Erin L. George, MFT
Erin L. George, MFT
Medical editor

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What are Mental Disorders?

A mental disorder is any disorder that affects behavior, emotions, or cognition. (1) In medical terms, cognition is a person's ability to gain new knowledge and use it to understand the world around them. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) estimates that one in five American adults experiences mental illness each year. (2) Mental disorders are also common in younger people, with nearly 17% of children and adolescents between the ages of six and 17 experiencing some type of mental health disorder annually. Get a clear picture of your mental health with a professional mental health test.

Mental disorders are linked to a wide range of symptoms, some mental and some physical. These symptoms can impact not only a person suffering from mental illness but the people in their life too. The presence of a single sign or trait doesn't necessarily indicate that someone has a mental disorder. If several symptoms occur, however, the American Psychiatric Association recommends seeing a mental health professional. (3)

Possible symptoms of a mental disorder include: (4)

  • Mood changes
  • Dramatic changes in appetite
  • Apathy
  • Nervousness
  • Poor mental functioning
  • Social withdrawal
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Poor memory
  • Heightened sensitivity
  • Behavioral changes
  • Erectile dysfunction
  • Fatigue
  • Back pain
  • Muscle pain

In addition to causing physical and mental challenges, the emotional upheaval that often accompanies mental disorders can sometimes make it difficult to maintain positive relationships. Friends and family members may feel angry, confused, or ashamed. They may also wonder if they're to blame for their loved one's symptoms. (5) Open communication and professional interventions, such as individual and family therapy, can benefit all involved.

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Types of Mental Disorders

Some of the most common types of mental disorders include anxiety disorders, eating disorders, mood disorders, psychotic disorders, behavior disorders, and developmental disorders. (6)

Anxiety Disorders

Anxiety disorders are characterized by persistent anxiety that interferes with a person's daily activities. (7)

Examples include:

Eating Disorders

Eating disorders cause people distressing emotions when they eat or think about food. (8) People with disordered eating also tend to spend a lot of time obsessively thinking about their weight. The symptoms of an eating disorder vary, with some disorders causing restrictive eating and others causing binging (compulsive overeating).

Examples include:

Mood Disorders

Mood disorders cause emotional highs and lows. (9) These ups and downs affect an individual's behavior and ability to maintain relationships.

Examples include:

Psychotic Disorders

Psychotic disorders change the way people think and feel, often causing delusions or hallucinations. A delusion is a false belief, while a hallucination is a false perception. (10) Someone with delusions may believe the government is tracking them, for example, whereas someone who is hallucinating may believe they are seeing or hearing things that aren’t present. Schizophrenia is one of the best-known examples of a psychotic disorder. Some people with bipolar disorder also have psychotic symptoms.

Behavior Disorders

Behavior disorders cause people to exhibit disruptive behaviors. (11) Often, these behaviors persist and interfere with daily activities. Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a common example as is oppositional defiant disorder (ODD). Symptoms of behavior disorders include impulsivity, hyperactivity, and inattentiveness.

Developmental Disorders

Some developmental disorders cause changes in mood and behavior. These disorders may affect language skills, thinking, and behavior. (12) One example is autism spectrum disorder (ASD), which is often characterized by repetitive behaviors, difficulty communicating, sensory challenges, and atypical emotional reactions. (13)

What Causes Mental Disorders? Signs to Know.

Many factors contribute to the development of mental health disorders. Some of these potential causes are environmental, while others are genetic. One of the most common environmental factors is exposure to trauma as a young child. (6) Children who experience physical or sexual abuse have an increased risk of developing mental health disorders as they age. Loneliness, isolation, and strained family relationships are also associated with a higher risk of developing mental health challenges.

Fetuses exposed to toxic chemicals or viruses while in utero may also be at higher risk of developing a mental disorder in the future. Certain genetic variations may also increase the risk of mental health disorders in children and adults. For instance, the National Institutes of Health reports that a variation in the CACNA1C gene has been linked to major depressive disorder, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder. (14) This gene affects the part of the brain involved in thinking, memory, attention, and emotion.

Mental disorders may also develop in response to:

  • Prolonged drug or alcohol use
  • Traumatic brain injuries
  • Serious medical conditions
  • Chemical imbalances in the brain (6)

Do I Have a Mental Disorder? How Are Mental Disorders Diagnosed?

Mental disorders are typically diagnosed with a physical examination and a thorough interview. A licensed mental health professional will ask questions about the individual's symptoms and medical history. They may also ask about the individual's family life, social history, and substance use.

In some cases, a doctor orders blood tests or brain/body imaging studies to rule out a physical cause for the patient's symptoms. (15) It's important for someone with a mental health disorder to receive a diagnosis from a qualified professional. A formal diagnosis may make it easier to qualify for related services, disability benefits, and/or workplace accommodations.

What Is the Best Treatment for Mental Disorders?

No single treatment works well for every mental health disorder. The best treatment depends on the type of disorder an individual has, their specific symptoms, and the severity of those challenges. Mental health professionals also make treatment recommendations based on each patient's medical and social history.

Medications and psychotherapy are two of the most common treatment options. Several types of medications are used to treat mental health symptoms, including antidepressants, antianxiety medications, mood stabilizers, and antipsychotics. (16) Patients may start with a small amount of medication and increase the dosage over time, or it may take several medication trials to find the prescription best suited to the individual's needs.

Psychotherapy, also known as "talk therapy," helps patients explore their thoughts and behaviors. (17) A trained psychotherapist facilitates each session and helps the patient gain insight into their behavior and relationships. In some cases, the psychotherapist also helps patients find better ways of responding to stressful circumstances.

How to Cope with Mental Disorder Diagnosis

Mental disorders affect millions of people every year, so it's important for an individual with a new diagnosis to remember they're not alone. Someone with a mental disorder diagnosis should also surround themselves with supportive friends and family members. A strong support network can make it easier to cope with symptoms and stick with the recommended treatment plan.

Eating nutritious foods and incorporating exercise as much as possible can also help boost a person's mood and alleviate certain symptoms. (18)

How to Help Someone with a Mental Disorder

Support from loved ones can make a big difference in the life of someone with a mental disorder. Family members and friends should approach tough conversations from a place of love and empathy. It's also important to talk in a comfortable space, use a calm tone of voice, and avoid shaming or blaming language. (19)

People with mental disorders have a wide range of needs, so loved ones should ask how to help instead of assuming they know what needs to be done. For example, some people with mental disorders value emotional support and encouragement, while others need help with more practical aspects of life, such as meal preparation and transportation to medical appointments.