Introduction to mental illness


Mental health disorders (psychiatric or psychological disorders) involve alterations in thinking, emotions and / or behavior. Mild alterations in these vital aspects are common, but when they cause intense distress to the affected person and / or interfere with their daily life, they are considered mental illnesses or mental health disorders. The effects of mental illness can be temporary or long-lasting.

Almost 50% of adults suffer from a mental disorder at some point in their life. More than half of these people experience severe or moderate symptoms. In fact, four of the 10 main causes of disability among subjects older than 5 years of age correspond to mental disorders, with depression being the first cause of disability due to illness. Despite this high prevalence of mental disorders, only around 20% of people with mental illness receive professional help.


At present, the origin of mental illness is considered to be determined by a complex interaction between factors, including the following:


Biological (physical factors)


Environmental (including social and cultural factors)

Various studies have shown that genetics play a role in many mental disorders. Mental disorders often occur in people whose genetic makeup predisposes them to these types of disorders. This vulnerability, combined with life stresses such as family or work difficulties, can lead to the development of a mental disorder.

In addition, many experts believe that impaired regulation of various brain chemical mediators (neurotransmitters) can contribute to mental disorders. Some imaging techniques, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and positron emission tomography (PET), often show changes in the brain in people with a mental disorder. Therefore, many mental disorders appear to have a biological component, as do diseases that are considered neurological (such as Alzheimer’s disease). However, it is not clear whether the changes seen in the imaging tests are the cause or the result of the mental disorder.


In recent decades, there has been a movement to remove people with mental illness from institutions (deinstitutionalization) and support them so that they can live in community. This has been possible thanks to the development of effective drugs and certain changes in attitudes towards the mentally ill. This movement has placed great emphasis on considering the mentally ill as another member of families and communities. A decision by the United States Supreme Court in 1999 significantly helped this change. This decision, called the Olmstead decision, requires states to provide treatment for the mentally ill in the community setting whenever this is medically appropriate.

Research has shown that certain interactions between seriously mentally ill people and their families can improve or worsen mental illness. In this sense, family therapy techniques have been developed that prevent the need for readmission in people with chronic mental illnesses. Today, the family of a mentally ill person is more than ever involved as an ally in treatment. The primary care physician also plays an important role in the rehabilitation of the mentally ill within the community.


Cualquier persona necesita un entramado social para satisfacer la necesidad humana de ser cuidado, aceptado y apoyado emocionalmente, sobre todo en periodos de estrés. Diversas investigaciones han mostrado que un fuerte apoyo social acelera de forma significativa la recuperación de las enfermedades físicas y mentales. Los cambios sociales han disminuido el apoyo que tradicionalmente proporcionaban los familiares y vecinos. Como alternativa, han surgido en muchos países grupos de autoayuda y de ayuda mutua.

Algunos grupos de autoayuda, como Alcohólicos Anónimos o Narcóticos Anónimos, se centran en las personas que tienen conductas adictivas. Otros actúan en defensa de ciertos segmentos de la población, como los discapacitados y las personas mayores. Incluso existen organizaciones, como la Alianza Nacional para los Enfermos Mentales (NAMI, por sus siglas en inglés), que proporcionan apoyo a los familiares de personas con enfermedades mentales graves.


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