What is Mental Illness?

Posted on 08/05/13 12:10:pm

The following post is part of a letter presented by Jerry Halverson, MD, FAPA, to members of the Speaker’s Taskforce on Mental Health during a public hearing for the state of Wisconsin. He was asked to provide an overview of mental illness and the challenges faced by those that suffer, as well as the professionals the treat them. Part one:


What is Mental Illness?

By Jerry Halverson, MD, FAPA Medical Director of Adult Services at Rogers Behavioral Health

I will start with what a mental illness is not. It is not a choice. It is not a weakness. A mental illness is a physical and/or emotional manifestation of diseases of the brain. Caused by too much or too little of certain chemical actions in one part of the brain, this hyper/hypo activity is used to communicate and transmit messages within the brain. This may lead to symptoms that present as changes in thoughts, moods, or behaviors. Associated with distress and impaired functioning, these thoughts can have minor or dire effects that could include disruptions of daily functions, incapacitating personal, social, and occupational impairment or even premature death. The most common mental illnesses in adults are anxiety and mood disorders.

The term mental illness refers collectively to all diagnosable mental disorders. These brain diseases can be caused by genetics or external events/agents thus, altering the chemicals our brains produce and changing the brain behavior.

Mental illnesses are found in all races, genders and socioeconomic classes. They are found throughout our state, our country and our world. According to the World Health Organization, mental illness results in more disability in developed countries than any other group of illnesses, including cancer and heart disease. Published studies report that about 25 percent of all U.S. adults have a mental illness and that nearly 50% of U.S. adults will develop at least one mental illness during their lifetime.

Mental illness is an important public health problem in itself, but also because it is often associated with chronic medical issues such as dementia, cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Data from the Wisconsin Health Information Organization (WHIO) shows behavioral health ranks third in illnesses most costly to treat. Unfortunately the data most likely underreports these costs as it does not include substance use disorders, patients being treated for the wrong diagnosis or for under-diagnosed patients whose illness may lead to additional unhealthy behaviors.

We know mental illness tends to worsen outcomes in medical illnesses, in turn leading to increased costs and complications, higher death rates, longer hospital stays and less control over chronic health issues. Mental illness is also associated with use of tobacco and abuse of alcohol.

Making an accurate diagnosis and treatment options are additional challenges facing mental illness. Dr. Halverson addressed this with the task force as well, his thoughts shared in an upcoming blog.


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