In the past decade, mental health professionals have begun applying research to the study of happiness. The result is "positive psychology," a new field of inquiry that focuses on the emotions and personality traits that add up to a satisfying life. Positive psychology also investigates how its principles apply to community and social institutions, such as families, schools, and workplaces.
Research has confirmed what most lottery winners have found out the hard way; happiness is not necessarily waiting on the slopes of Whistler or behind the wheel of a Maserati. It consists of having physical health, intellectual challenges, close family ties, engaging social relationships, and perhaps some kind of spiritual connection.
Of course, everyone is confronted with profound challenges from time to time—job loss, legal problems, divorce, injury or illness, and bereavement. These situations can be devastating. Such setbacks are often accompanied by financial reversals, such as bankruptcy or home foreclosure. But these experiences of loss, disappointment, and misfortune help us appreciate what—and who—we have.
Most of the time, we bounce back from adversity. The degree to which we're able to do so is called resilience. But sometimes a person lacks the support system or inner resources to rally after a hard blow. Depression, an anxiety disorder, or some other mental illness may follow.
Types of Mental Health Disorders
Like physical illness, mental illness takes many forms. To make sense of these forms, experts have devised 16 categories, ranging from factitious (faking) disorders to psychoses. Let's look at the characteristics of several of the most common types of mental health disorder
There are three types of depression:
Dysthymia is a chronic (long term) but mild depression that lasts more than two years and keeps people from functioning at their highest level. People with dysthymia feel a great deal of self-doubt and may pass up educational or career opportunities as a result. They're able to go through the motions but tend to find little joy in life.
Major depression is a chronic, severe sense of despair that lasts six months or more. Major depression usually impairs the ability to work or study, interferes with relationships, and/or affects eating or sleeping patterns. Dysthymia can evolve into major depression.
Also called manic-depressive disorder, bipolar (meaning "two poles") illness is a form of depression in which a person cycles through unpredictable highs and lows, punctuated by periods of relative stability. The highs are sometimes referred to as "mania," but that term is a bit misleading because it suggests that the manic person is frenzied or deranged. In fact, the person might simply appear excited, talkative, energetic, and upbeat. During this phase, the person is apt to pursue overly ambitious projects, show poor judgment, and display reckless behavior, such as engaging in unsafe sex, spending or gambling sprees, or drinking binges. Conversely when the person is moving through a depressive cycle, he or she will show traits more common to depression such as sleep problems, loss of interest in hobbies, guilt, indifference, and loss of concentration.
When normal apprehension escalates into alarm and dread, it is classified as a mental health problem. Anxiety disorders are classified as follows:
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
People with GAD might be called "high strung." They expect poor outcomes, tend to be jumpy and fearful, and worry a great deal about minor things that are beyond their control. Being emotionally overwrought may contribute to physical symptoms, such as stomach ailments, headaches, insomnia, and fatigue.
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
OCD is characterized by persistent, intrusive thoughts that cause uneasiness, fear, or distress—the obsessive component of the disorder—and by repetitive irrational rituals the person feels compelled to perform in order to alleviate anxiety—the compulsive component of the disorder. For example, a person who is afraid of contamination might iron clothes obsessively—even socks, sheets, and underwear—in an effort to kill germs with the heat of the iron.
The chief symptom of panic disorder is a sudden, crushing wave of anxiety accompanied by physical symptoms such as sweating, nausea, shortness of breath, dizziness, and heart palpitations. These waves of panic generally peak within 10 minutes and then go away. About six million adults in the United States have panic disorder. It can begin at any age, but the typical onset is in the mid-20s. It may be accompanied by other conditions, such as bipolar disorder.
Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
As its name suggests, PTSD occurs among people who have survived a severe trauma, such as combat, rape, a natural disaster, or diagnosis of a life-threatening illness. This disorder can induce either a state of hyperarousal, in which the person remains constantly vigilant for threats, or a state of dissociation, in which feelings and thoughts are separated or compartmentalized. The person may have flashbacks; become detached or irritable; or avoid certain people, places, or situations that arouse disturbing memories.
Social Phobia (Social Anxiety Disorder)
People with social phobia are enveloped by an overwhelming sense of dread in certain social situations, such as job interviews, parties, or dates. Even being called upon to answer a question during a business meeting or needing to ask for directions can cause a person with social phobia to blush, sweat, tremble, or feel faint. This disorder often accompanies bipolar disorder and other depressive illnesses. It can also occur with anxiety disorders such as OCD and panic disorder. For reasons that are unclear, about 40 percent of people with social phobia have a coexisting substance abuse problem.
Schizophrenia is a psychotic disorder that entails a loss of touch with reality. A person with schizophrenia cannot cope with daily life or meet the reasonable expectations and demands of others, such as an employer or partner. Symptoms of the disorder include the following:
- Disordered, delusional thoughts, which may include hallucinations and paranoia
- Incoherent, disjointed speech and behavior
- Blunted emotions and withdrawal from others
- Impaired judgment and intellectual abilities
- Poor impulse control
- An unkempt personal appearance
Schizophrenia affects one percent of adults and generally appears earlier in men than in women. Men usually begin to show symptoms between ages 18 and 25. Women usually begin to show symptoms between ages 25 and 35. Schizophrenia tends to ‘burn out' by the mid-60s. Patients usually do not regain normal mental functioning, but their hallucinations begin to diminish.