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Fact Sheet: Mental Illness


Mental illnesses are disorders of the brain that disrupt a persons thinking, feeling, moods, and ability to relate to others. Mental illness is an illness that affects or is manifested in a persons brain that often results in a diminished capacity for coping with the ordinary demands of life. It may affect the way a person thinks, behaves, and interacts with other people.


Mental illnesses can affect persons of any age, race, religion, or income. Five million people in the United States alone suffer from a serious chronic brain disorder.


The term mental illness encompasses numerous psychiatric disorders, and just like illnesses that affect other parts of the body, they can vary in severity. Many people suffering from mental illness may not look as though something is wrong, while others may appear confused, agitated, or withdrawn.

It is a myth that mental illness is a weakness or defect in character and that sufferers can get better simply by pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. Mental illnesses are not the result of personal weakness, lack of character, or poor upbringing. Mental illnesses are real illnessesas real as heart disease and cancerand they require and respond well to treatment.

The term mental illness is an unfortunate one because it implies a distinction between mental disorders and physical disorders. Research shows that there is much that is physical in mental disorders (and vice-versa). For example, the brain chemistry of a person with major depression differs from that of a nondepressed person, and medication can be used (often in combination with psychotherapy) to bring the brain chemistry back to normal. Similarly, a person who is suffering from hardening of the arteries in the brainwhich reduces the flow of blood and thus oxygen in the brainmay experience mental symptoms such as confusion and forgetfulness.

Mental illness is characterized by a wide range of behaviors which include, but are not limited to:

Advances In Treatment

In the past 20 years especially, psychiatric research has made great strides in the precise diagnosis and successful treatment of many mental illnesses. Whereas once mentally ill people were warehoused in public institutions because they were disruptive or feared to be harmful to themselves or others, today most people who suffer from a mental illness including those that can be extremely debilitating, such as schizophrenia can be treated effectively and lead full lives. As a diabetic takes insulin, most people with serious mental illness need medication to help control symptoms. Supportive counseling, self-help groups, housing, vocational rehabilitation, income assistance, and other community services can also provide support and stability, allowing the individual to focus on recovery.

Types of Psychiatric Disabilities

Some of the more commonly known psychiatric disorders are depression; manic depression (also known as bipolar disorder); anxiety disorders, including specific phobias (such as fear of heights), social phobia, panic disorder, agoraphobia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder; schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders, such as delusional disorder; substance abuse and disorders related to substance abuse; delirium; dementia, including Alzheimers disease; eating disorders, such as bulimia and anorexia; sleep disorders; sexual disorders; dissociative disorders, such as multiple personality disorder; and personality disorders, such as borderline personality disorder and antisocial personality disorder.


Each state and territory has a public agency which provides and funds services for individuals with psychiatric disabilities. A listing of these agencies is available at the following web site:

Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law

1101 15th St. NW, Suite 1212
Washington D.C. 20005
Phone: 202-467-5730
Fax: 202-223-0409
TDD: 202-467-4232
Web site:

Information and referral on legal rights of people with mental disabilities

The Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation

Boston University
940 Commonwealth Avenue West
Boston, MA 02215
Voice: (617) 353-3549
Fax: (617) 353-7700
TTY: (617) 353-7701
Web site:

A research, training, and service organization dedicated to improving the lives of persons who have psychiatric disabilities by improving the effectiveness of people, programs, and service systems. Information resource.

National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI)

200 North Glebe Road; Suite 1015
Arlington, VA 22203-3754
Voice: (703) 524-7600; (800) 950-6264
TTY: (703) 516-7227
Fax: (703) 524-9094

State affiliates available at:

National membership organization which provides a comprehensive collection of information and resources spanning the field of mental illness including areas such as medical, legal and family issues. Focus on consumer-based advocacy.

National Depressive & Manic-Depressive Association

730 North Franklin Street; Suite 501
Chicago, IL 60610-3526
Voice: (800) 826-3632
Fax: (312) 642-7243

Provides practical and helpful information from education to advocacy to support resources concerning depressive and manic-depressive illness.

International Association of Psychosocial Rehabilitation Services (IAPSRS)

10025 Governor Warfield Parkway #301
Columbia, MD 21044-3357
Voice: (410) 730-7190
TTY: (410) 730-1723
Fax: (410) 730-5965
Web site:

Provides the latest information on community-oriented rehabilitation services and resources for persons with psychiatric disabilities, including publications, public policy, and a registry of practitioners.

National Institute of Mental Health

NIMH Public Inquiries
6001 Executive Boulevard, Rm. 8184, MSC 9663
Bethesda, MD 20892-9663
Voice: (301) 443-4513
Fax: (301) 443-4279
Web site:

National research organization which conducts research to diminish the burden of mental illneess. Has a variety of information resources and publications available.

National Mental Health Association

1021 Prince Street
Alexandria, VA 22314-2971
Voice: (800) 969-6642; (703) 684-7722
TTY: (800) 433-5959
Web site:

Listing of state affiliates available at: Provides information and referral concerning mental illness. Has a variety of publications and fact sheets available.

Obsessive-Compulsive Foundation, Inc.

P.O. Box 70
Milford, CT 06460-0070
Voice: (203) 878-5669
Web site:
State and local affiliates available at:

National membership organization with a variety of information and resources on obsessive-compulsive disorders.

Based in part on material from:
National Alliance for Mentally Ill -
American Psychiatric Association -

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