What is a Mental Illness?

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) defines mental illness as “a condition that impacts a person’s thinking, feeling or mood and may affect his ability to relate to others and function on a daily basis.” One’s mental wellbeing may be influenced by a number of factors: genetics, environment and lifestyle are just a few. Traumatic events may affect an individual’s mental state, as may “biochemical processes and basic brain structure.”

It’s important to understand that each of us may experience heightened stress due to things such as bereavement, a change in job status or an issue with our health; however, if you experience long-term symptoms, have panic attacks or begin to use other measures or substances to cope, it’s important to get help. Without it, the symptoms could become chronic.

An acute mental illness for example, Bob Burchfield, psychiatric nurse system director of behavior services for Baptist Health said, may be episodic. For instance, a 65-year-old man whose wife recently died of cancer receives a diagnosis of prostate cancer and becomes suicidal, though he has no history of mental illness.

“The difference here isn’t the diagnosis, but the symptoms the patient is experiencing,” said Stephanie Graves, program manager for Baptist Health Behavior Services.

“Yes, a person can have chronic depression and not be suicidal, however, an incident — such as a cancer diagnosis — can become a crisis and cause an acute situation. Let’s say a patient is being treated for severe depression. [He is managing well and living normally,] then the holidays come and it’s a new year. He may enter the new year thinking, I’m just tired of living like this and become suicidal. He may require a change in medication. Or in both situations, hospitalization may be required for treatment.”


While there is no single cause for suicide, there are several warning signs.

Verbal: Get help if a person speaks of:
  • being a burden to others;
  • feeling as if his life has no meaning or purpose;
  • experiencing unbearable pain or sadness;
  • feeling trapped; or
  • killing himself.
Behavior: Get help if a person:
  • begins to drink alcohol or use drugs, or increases his use of these;
  • acts recklessly;
  • withdraws from family and/or friends;
  • isolates himself and no longer participates in normal or social activities;
  • sleeps too much or too little;
  • looks for a way to kill himself (searching online);
  • visits or calls people to say goodbye;
  • gives away valued or prized possessions; or
  • becomes aggressive.
Mood: Get help if a person shows signs of:
  • depression;
  • a loss of interest in normal activities;
  • rage, irritability or agitation;
  • humiliation; or
  • anxiety.

Source: American Foundation for Suicide Prevention

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