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How Do We Measure Mental Illness

Posted by Erin Fischer on

The definition of mental illness as defined by the Australian Institute of Health and Wellness is the following: a clinically diagnosable disorder that significantly interferes with a person’s cognitive, emotional, or social abilities. 

1 in 5 adults in Australia experience a mental illness every year with it being estimated that 45% of Australians will be affected by mental illness at some time in their life. As with many diseases, there is a spectrum and, in some people, it can be severe and noticeable and in others mild and not noticeable. There are many different types of mental illnesses including depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder. Each illness can alter the persons’ thoughts, feelings, and behaviours in distinct ways with specific characteristics being related to a type of mental illness.

Signs of mental illness can include the following (taken from Mayo Clinic):

  •         Feeling sad or down
  •         Confused thinking or reduced ability to concentrate
  •         Excessive fears or worries, or extreme feelings of guilt
  •         Extreme mood changes of highs and lows
  •         Withdrawal from friends and activities
  •         Significant tiredness, low energy, or problems sleeping
  •         Detachment from reality (delusions), paranoia, or hallucinations
  •         Inability to cope with daily problems or stress
  •         Trouble understanding and relating to situations and to people
  •         Problems with alcohol or drug use
  •         Major changes in eating habits
  •         Sex drive changes
  •         Excessive anger, hostility, or violence
  •         Suicidal thinking

This isn’t to say if you are experiencing the above that you do have a mental illness. However, If you are experiencing one or more of the above and they are persisting for a period of over two weeks and having a negative impact on your life it may be a good idea to seek professional help.

There is never a right or wrong time to seek help when it comes to your mental health, but it can be hard to work out who to see about getting the help you need or a possible diagnosis. General practitioners, psychologists, and psychiatrists can all diagnose mental illness. A general practitioner (GP) is a doctor that has completed training in general practice, they have broad knowledge and skills to treat a wide range of illnesses. If you have a health issue, they are who you should see first, and then if they can’t help you, they will refer you to a specialist in that area.

Both the terms psychologists and psychiatrists sound similar and the start of both words are taken from the Greek word Psykhe which means mind in Greek, but they have different roles. A psychiatrist is a doctor who has completed further study in the field of psychiatry. They can prescribe medication along with doing talk therapy, they are also able to prescribe a wider range of medication compared to a GP due to their further training. You may see a psychiatrist if you have a severe mental illness, or if you or your GP feels that they are unable to provide the best treatment for you. Psychologists are health professionals who are trained in human behaviour and use talk therapy (of which there are many types) and non-medication treatments. Some psychologists have further training in specialist areas such as clinical, forensic, or sports. In Australia, a clinical psychologist is a psychologist who has completed a further 2 years overseen by the Psychology Board of Australia and is specialised in the field of mental health. Therefore they can help with more complex mental health issues compared to a registered psychologist.

Unfortunately, there is no physical test for mental illness, though some physical tests may be done to rule out if anything physical could be affecting your mental health. Instead, the medical professional will ask you a range of questions and may get you to fill out some questionnaires regarding your mood and behaviour. You will also get asked about your family history, medical history, work history, and if any major changes have happened in your life. It’s important to answer all these questions honestly so that the medical professional can give you the best diagnosis on the knowledge they obtain. In Australia the most common system medical professionals use for diagnosing mental illnesses is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) this was first printed by the American Psychological Society in 1952 and covers all categories of mental health disorders for both children and adults. The DSM contains descriptions, symptoms, and other criteria for diagnosis. Over the years it has been updated and revised as mental illnesses have changed and more research has been done.

Getting diagnosed with a mental illness when you meet the requirements means that you will be able to get the right treatment you need, and it can help the right professionals treat you. There are many arguments about the way mental illness is diagnosed and whether people should be put into boxes just because they meet certain criteria when mental illness can change as circumstances change. Norman Sartorius president of the Association for the Improvement of Mental Health Programmes, Geneva, Switzerland is quoted saying in the Article Why Do We Need A Diagnosis? Maybe a Syndrome is Enough? “We might in fact be much better placed in our exploration of the nature of mental disorders if we were to systematically record not only the syndrome and the diagnosis but also other characteristics of those who have a mental disorder, doing so along the natural history timeline of the patients' condition.” Which would allow for a diagnosis to more easily adapt and people to receive more personalised treatment as time goes on and not be put into a specific diagnoses box. 

There is also the issue of mental illnesses getting misdiagnosed as is the case with bipolar disorder or postnatal anxiety, which are frequently misdiagnosed as depression when the patient first presents with symptoms according to the Australian Journal of General Practice. Diagnoses are consistently evolving especially in patients who are young, so it’s important to have regular check-ins with medical professionals so they can make changes and adapt the treatments and possible diagnoses as needed. 

Self-diagnosis of mental illnesses is becoming more common with young people turning to TikTok or other social media seemingly convinced that they meet the criteria for a mental illness, despite not seeking an official diagnosis as reported by McGoven Medical School. For adults, it’s easy to Google symptoms and get told you have a condition such as anxiety or depression despite inputting minimal symptoms. In 2008 Microsoft investigated the term “Cyberchondria” and how people only look at the first few links that come up into search engines despite those links often only listing the extremes when a headache could be a symptom of caffeine withdrawal instead of a brain tumour. Self-diagnosing yourself not only undermines those who have diagnoses from medical professionals but also the medical professionals themselves. 

The World Health Organisation quotes the following: “There is no health without mental health”. This means that mental health is a part of our health, and just like we need to take care of our physical health we need to take care of our mental health. Like with our physical health and how it varies so will our mental health. It’s normal to feel anxious and depressed at times and experiencing these things occasionally doesn’t mean you have a mental illness. It’s when these feelings impact your daily life in a negative way that you may have a mental illness and need to seek help.

There is a lot of controversy regarding whether you can be cured of a mental illness. The definition of cure is the following: relieve (a person or animal) of the symptoms of a disease or condition. Professor of Psychiatry Gavin Andrews is quoted in an interview saying: “Cure is possible, and we as clinicians, patients, and their families must pursue it energetically.” He has over 60 years of experience in the field and has seen the psychiatry landscape change from new medications and therapies to treatments being phased out and implementing newer treatments coming. While this will hopefully be true in the future the current research from the National Institute of Health (US) states the following: At this time, most mental illnesses cannot be cured, but they can usually be treated effectively to minimise the symptoms and allow the individual to function in work, school, or social environments. 

For many people being able to put a label on what is going on in their brain is comforting and helps them accept that they are not crazy, and allows them to be more open and accepting of treatment. In the case of Samantha Smlthsteln getting a diagnosis of PTSD and depression helped her accept that there was something wrong and allowed her to get the treatment she needed. It also helped her as a psychologist to better understand her patients and what they go through while awaiting a diagnosis. While getting a diagnosis can be scary and suddenly make things real it can help open up different types of treatments and support systems providing you with long-term help and support. 

In Barty Single Origin’s opinion getting a mental illness diagnosis can be really helpful and allow you to get the right treatment you need. However, you shouldn’t self-diagnose yourself as this can have a negative impact on those who have been professionally diagnosed. It’s normal to experience ups and downs in life and you don’t need a diagnosis to seek help from a psychologist or other mental health professional. It's better to get on top of the problem sooner rather than later regardless if it’s your physical or mental health.

What do you think? Feel free to leave a comment below. 

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About Erin Fischer

Am the qualified mental health professional at Barty Single Origin. Write topical pieces with a focus on mental health. Always available on chat, Just say, 'Hey Erin'. Passionate about reducing the stigma surrounding mental health and letting people know it's A-OK to be not OK. Mental health advocate, Anxiety survivor, baker, crafter, cat lover, blogger, and always down to get a coffee and chat.


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