How many mental illnesses are there?


By David Joel Miller.

How many mental illnesses do you know about?

Most people are familiar with a few mental illnesses. We have an official book called the DSM-4-TR which lists all the ones that are currently recognized, but professionals all know that sometime very soon there will be a new list and then this will all change (UPDATE now the DSM-5). Sometimes, as with manic-depressive disorder, we change the way people think about an illness by changing the name. The new name for this is Bipolar Disorder and that let us start drawing small distinctions between people who get the same diagnosis but their symptoms are so very different. Then there are a lot of things we might call “problems of daily living.” These problems send more people to counseling than most of the well know mental illnesses.

Now in addition to this, there are a lot of things in the back of the DSM (pick an edition here) that are only recognized in a particular culture. There is also a long list of diagnosis suggested for further research, which means some professionals think it should be a disorder and other professionals don’t.

So currently the DSM lists about 400 give or take mental, emotional or behavioral disorders. Even professionals forget to use all these codes a lot of the time.

When I teach classes in substance abuse counseling, I try to give prospective substance abuse counselors an overview of all these disorders. We don’t expect them to learn to diagnose disorders, just to recognize when a problem might be a mental illness and need a referral to a mental health professional. Here is that very over simplified way of understanding mental illnesses. We will reduce that list of 400 to about 6. For the rest of the list read the book or better yet go to a professional.

1. Problems of daily living.

These are the most common. That does not mean they are the least important. This includes adjustment disorders and relationship problems. Job loss, breakups, and divorces and parenting issues are common but they can be fatal. Ever hear of a person going through a divorce who kills themselves or others? These adjustments to life’s changes can throw people for a loop and result in severe disability. They result in the majority of referrals to therapists in private practice. Despite the fact that these problems can cause death, violence, and lots of suffering, not all insurance covers this kind of counseling. Publicly funded programs for adults often require that you actually try to kill yourself before they will treat you. Kids get a break most of the time. We need to make therapy and counseling more available but you knew I would say that. Didn’t you?

2. Anxiety disorders.

Does it surprise you that anxiety is in second place? It would be first place in those disorders most programs are set up to treat. Lots of anxiety out there. PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) is on the rise. Lots of shades of anxiety from phobias like fear of snakes to panic attacks.

3. Mood disorders.

This includes depression, bipolar disorder and a whole bunch of other labels we use less often. I have written several blog posts on these disorders and how we fail to catch them early. If you feel that you or someone around you has emotions that they can’t control seek professional help.

4. Substance use disorders.

This includes addiction or substance abuse and dependence as we are now calling it. Some of you will argue that this is not a mental illness. Taking drugs or drinking is a choice right? Well not exactly. Think of substance abuse in the same way we might look at type two diabetes. This has been characterized as a “disease of excess calories.” So if you exercise more and eat less you may not get it. But the truth is that whatever the reason you got it, voluntary or not, once you have it, you have it.

Substance use disorder is like that. It is characterized by an increase in tolerance to a drug, a physical or psychological withdrawal and a loss of control over the amount the client uses once they start using. Once they get it they need treatment or help to stop.

P.S. on this – in the DSM-5 there is more emphasis on the cravings that go with chemical and behavioral disorders.

5. Psychoses.

Most people would immediately think of a “paranoid schizophrenic” as an example of this. That would be wrong. Most people would also have started the list with this one. People think psychosis is a lot more common than it is. For the record, there are lots of psychoses other than Schizophrenia. Not all paranoids have schizophrenia by the way, and not all people with schizophrenia are paranoid.

Psychosis is a distortion of reality, sometimes referred to as a loss of touch with reality. That sounds more like a politician than a mentally ill person to me.

6. Problems of kids and growing up.

Things like developmental delays and mental retardation show up most often before a child goes to school. Learning disabilities and ADHD get diagnosed in the early grades and behavioral problems get diagnosed in middle school most often. This is not because these problems develop then but because as the child ages our expectations of them change and we notice different problems. Autism, Asperger’s Disorder, and Pervasive Developmental Delay NOS also get diagnosed most often when the child is young. Of course, most any of these conditions could show up in adulthood if they had not been spotted before. A group of issues we call attachment disorders could show up here but many adult clients are just now dealing with issues that began when they were very young. Things like abusive or neglectful parents. They have just managed to hide and put off dealing with these problems until a life stressor brings then out.

P.S. on that one also. In the DSM-5 we see a recognition that while something like ADHD may be first recognized in childhood it can continue your whole life. Just cause you never got this diagnosed in childhood should not keep it from getting recognized and treated later in life.

So there you have them – 6 broad categories of mental illnesses. I am sure I have left some other things out but these are the biggies that bring lots of suffering and drive people to therapy or meds. If any of these issues are affecting you or someone you care about, consider therapy, counseling or possible meds.  There is help out there and most of the time suffering in silence does not make the pain go away.

For more about David Joel Miller and my work in the areas of mental health, substance abuse and Co-occurring disorders see the about the author page. For information about my other writing work beyond this blog, there is also a Facebook authors page, in its infancy, up under David Joel Miller. Posts to the “books, trainings and classes” category will tell you about those activities. If you are in the Fresno California area, information about my private practice is at counselorfresno.com. Thanks to all who read this blog.

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One thought on “How many mental illnesses are there?

  1. Pingback: Types of Mania and Dual Mania | counselorssoapbox

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