Spotlights on Mental Health
With so many different conditions falling under the ‘mental health illness’ umbrella, it can be confusing to try and differentiate between them. We have created a spotlight on some of the most common diagnoses to help you better understand each one individually.
First of all, it is helpful to understand what mental illness actually is. This term refers to a group of illnesses that may impact on a person’s perception, moods, emotions, behaviours, feelings and thoughts. Both personal and work relationships can be affected by mental health issues.
Mental illnesses are associated with distress and/or problems functioning in social, work or family activities. Mental illness can be managed with medication, counselling or a mix of the two. Please know that this type of illness is common and you are not alone.
Some of the most widely experienced mental illnesses are:
ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder)
ADHD is a common condition that’s caused by differences in the brain. People with ADHD have trouble with focus. But some are also hyperactive and impulsive. That’s especially true with kids and teens.
People with ADHD have trouble with a group of key skills known as executive function. And that creates challenges in many areas of life, from school to work to everyday living. For example, people with ADHD often struggle to get organized, follow directions, and manage their emotions.
ADHD isn’t a matter of laziness or willpower—that’s one of many myths about it. In fact, people with ADHD are often trying as hard as they can to focus and keep their impulses in check.
For a long time, people thought ADHD was something only kids—boys, in particular—had. But research shows that adults also struggle with ADHD, and that women and girls have it as often as men and boys.
The main symptoms of ADHD are trouble with focus, impulsivity, and hyperactivity. People can have them to varying degrees, and not everyone has all three. Symptoms can change, and some might go away with age.
The stereotype of kids with ADHD is that they’re always in motion, they’re impulsive and hyperactive, and that they act out at home and at school. But some people with ADHD never have those symptoms. They only struggle with focus. ADD is one name for this type of ADHD. Further information can be found: www.understood.org
Anxiety is a type of fear, a worry or feeling of unease that can be mild or severe. Most people experience anxiety in their lives as a natural response to big changes such as starting a new job, or moving house, but this usually passes once the event is over. Anxiety begins to become a problem when fears and worries are out of proportion with the situation, when it’s hard to go about everyday life and do things or when your worries feel very distressing. More detailed information can be found here:
Autism, or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), refers to a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication.
We know that there is not one autism but many subtypes, most influenced by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Because autism is a spectrum disorder, each person with autism has a distinct set of strengths and challenges. The ways in which people with autism learn, think and problem-solve can range from highly skilled to severely challenged. Some people with ASD may require significant support in their daily lives, while others may need less support and, in some cases, live entirely independently.
Several factors may influence the development of autism, and it is often accompanied by sensory sensitivities and medical issues such as gastrointestinal (GI) disorders, seizures or sleep disorders, as well as mental health challenges such as anxiety, depression and attention issues.
Signs of autism usually appear by age 2 or 3. Some associated development delays can appear even earlier, and often, it can be diagnosed as early as 18 months. Research shows that early intervention leads to positive outcomes later in life for people with autism.
The autism diagnosis age and intensity of autism’s early signs vary widely. Some infants show hints in their first months. In others, behaviors become obvious as late as age 2 or 3.
Not all children with autism show all the signs. Many children who don’t have autism show a few. That’s why professional evaluation is crucial.
The following may indicate your child is at risk for an autism spectrum disorder. If your child exhibits any of the following, ask your pediatrician or family doctor for an evaluation right away:
By 6 months
- Few or no big smiles or other warm, joyful and engaging expressions
- Limited or no eye contact
By 9 months
- Little or no back-and-forth sharing of sounds, smiles or other facial expressions
By 12 months
- Little or no babbling
- Little or no back-and-forth gestures such as pointing, showing, reaching or waving
- Little or no response to name
By 16 months
- Very few or no words
By 24 months
- Very few or no meaningful, two-word phrases (not including imitating or repeating)
At any age
- Loss of previously acquired speech, babbling or social skills
- Avoidance of eye contact
- Persistent preference for solitude
- Difficulty understanding other people’s feelings
- Delayed language development
- Persistent repetition of words or phrases (echolalia)
- Resistance to minor changes in routine or surroundings
- Restricted interests
- Repetitive behaviors (flapping, rocking, spinning, etc.)
- Unusual and intense reactions to sounds, smells, tastes, textures, lights and/or colors
Further information can be found here: www.autismspeaks.org
Depression is more than feeling down, fed up or unhappy for a short period. It is a mood disorder that causes a persistent feeling of sadness and loss of interest. Because of this, it can lead to a number of physical and emotional problems. Depression also affects how you behave, think and act. When you’re depressed you feel persistently sad for weeks or months at a time. Other effects may be extreme tiredness, not sleeping very well, feeling tearful, loss of appetite and hopelessness. A lot of these symptoms are the same as those exhibited by people with anxiety.
As with anxiety, it is absolutely possible to make a full recovery from this condition with the right treatment and support. More detailed information can be found here: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/clinical-depression/#overview
According to www.NHS.uk “an eating disorder is when you have an unhealthy attitude to food, which can take over your life and make you ill.” This type of illness is most common in girls aged between 13-17 but can affect both men and women of any age. There are a number of different eating disorders including anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorder. More detailed information about the symptoms of the different conditions can be found here: https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/warning-signs-and-symptoms. Eating disorders are serious and potentially life-threatening conditions. Each condition presents unique challenges that must be addressed. Lots of people with eating disorders also have other mental health conditions such as anxiety or depression. Read more about this category of condition here: https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/types-of-mental-health-problems/eating-problems/about-eating-problems/
This term describes when you experience reality in a different way to others, for example, hearing voices can be a common effect or thinking that someone is trying to harm you. It can be a one-off experience or linked to other mental health conditions like bipolar. The main symptoms of a psychotic episode are hallucinations (when you see things that are not there) and delusions (when you have a firm belief in something untrue). People who have psychotic episodes are often unaware that their delusions or hallucinations are not real, which may lead them to feel frightened or distressed. Sometimes people with psychosis will have disturbed or confused thoughts too. With the right support it is possible to manage the symptoms and recover, however, this doesn’t mean it will go away permanently or completely. More information can be found here: https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/types-of-mental-health-problems/psychosis/treatment-and-support/
Self-harming is as the name suggests; when a person is injuring their body intentionally. This is usually symptomatic of overwhelming emotional distress. It can be a cry for help too. Treatment for people who self-harm usually involves some sort of therapy to find the link between feelings/thoughts and how you act including your wellbeing. More detailed information can be found here: https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/types-of-mental-health-problems/self-harm/about-self-harm/
Suicide means ending your own life. Every year over 800,000 take their own life (www.who.int). There is a link between mental health disorders and this group have been found to be at higher risk of suicidal thoughts and tendencies but sometimes suicides can happen impulsively in a moment of crisis as a response to life stresses such as relationship breakdowns, financial problems. There is no single explanation of why people die by suicide; psychological, social and cultural factors can all be contributary to suicidal thoughts or behaviour. There are many support organisations out there than can help if you are wanting to die or if you are the family of someone that has taken their life. Some of these can be found here: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/suicide/
Relationship between physical and mental health
Physical health problems significantly increase the risk of poor mental health, and vice versa.
Around 30% of all people with a long-term physical health condition also have a mental health problem, most commonly depression/anxiety (www.kingsfund.org.uk). People with severe mental illnesses have noticeably higher rates of physical illness which has a dramatic effect on their life-expectancy.
Mind and body and intertwined and linked in this context and should not be thought of separately. Ways to nurture both areas include:
- Exercise – Exercise releases endorphins, the feel-good chemical that our brains produce. The more endorphins we have floating around, the better we feel. Any kind of physical activity can help to influence this for example gardening, hoovering or a brisk walk. It doesn’t have to be a big, high-impact routine, just regular, everyday movement can be hugely beneficial to your mental wellbeing and your quality of life.
- Diet – Good nutrition is a huge factor in influencing how we feel. In fact, eating well can affect the development, management and even prevention of various mental health conditions including depression so it is worth learning more about the food you are putting into your body and making sure you have a well-balanced diet.
- Don’t smoke – Smoking has a negative impact on both physical and mental health. The nicotine in cigarette interferes with the chemicals in our brain. Dopamine is a chemical which influences positive feelings and is often found to be lower in people with depression. Nicotine temporarily increases the levels of dopamine, but also switches off the brain's natural mechanism for making the chemical. In the long term, this can make a person feel as though they need more and more nicotine in order to repeat this positive sensation (mentalhealth.org.uk)
Relationship between food and mental health
What we eat and drink affects how we think, act and feel. Food affects your mood. In order for your brain to be able to focus and concentrate it needs energy. Not having enough energy for our brains can leave us feeling tired, weak and unable to think clearly. Our bodies get this energy from blood glucose and this in turn comes from the carbohydrates that we eat. Eating regular meals with some carbs really helps with this so for example, vegetables, fruits, wholegrains, pasta or rice. Foods that release energy slowly throughout the day help us to stay balance so oats, nuts, cereals and seeds are good choices here.
To regulate feelings and thoughts, our brains need amino acids. These can be found in proteins such as cheese, fish, eggs, soya products and lean meat. Despite the name, some fats are actually healthy and essential to our wellbeing such as omega 3 and omega 6. These help our brains function well. To get these fats, you will need to eat foods such as avocado, oily fish, poultry, nuts and seeds.
A varied and balanced diet rich in fruit and vegetables is recommended in order to maintain the level of vitamins and nutrients our bodies require to perform at optimum level. Vitamin and mineral deficiencies are known to affect our moods for example, a lack of iron can leave you weak and lethargic as well as tired and irritable. Not enough folate has potential to lead to higher risk of depression.
We should not ignore gut health too; our digestive system produces over 90% of all serotonin (the ‘happy’ hormone) in our body. Our gut also affects our resilience to stress and even our immunity so you see, it is important to look after it.