What To Do If You Think You Are Mentally Ill
Getting a psychiatric evaluation can be key to determining the cause of your psychological symptoms and obtaining proper treatment.
See an Experienced Mental Health Professional
If you feel you may be suffering from a mental illness, we urge you in the strongest terms to seek the advice of an experienced mental health professional - a psychologist or psychiatrist.
(ed. note: Psychiatrists are medical doctors who specialize in mental illness. They have M.D. degrees and are licensed to prescribe medicine. Psychologists hold graduate degrees and practice "talk therapy". Although general practitioners - regular medical doctors - may legally prescribe antidepressants and other medications, most do not have the training or experience to diagnose and treat the more serious mental illnesses.)
This is important for more reasons than to simply relieve your suffering. If left untreated, a mental illness can cause permanent damage. For instance, besides the kindling (a process in which the brain becomes increasingly sensitive to stress and eventually begins to show episodes of abnormal activity even in the absence of a stressor) that occurs with untreated manic depression, there is the damage that bad decisions or the inability to maintain relationships can do to your life. If you get severely depressed, there is the danger of suicide. It is much easier to deal with a mental illness before you become desperately ill. Look at it this way: an office visit is much cheaper than a hospital stay.
Importance of an Accurate Mental Health Diagnosis
Accurate diagnosis is important. It is difficult to diagnose many mental disorders, and if you're misdiagnosed you may not receive the treatment you need. For example, it's common to mistake manic depression for schizophrenia or ADHD. Sometimes, doctors misdiagnose depression when it's really bipolar. In a case like that, there is the danger that antidepressants may cause one to become manic.
continue story below
Part of the diagnostic process is obtaining a patient history. That means the doctor will want to know not only your history of psychological problems, but also any mental illness among family members and even distant relatives. Many psychiatric disorders are believed to have a genetic component.
Do not engage in the self-deception of self-diagnosis. It is common for people to hear about illnesses of all sorts on Oprah or some other tv show (or the Internet!) and to then fool themselves into thinking they share the diagnosis with the talk show guest. If you research an illness carefully enough before you consult a doctor, you can even fool him into agreeing with your diagnosis.
Failure to diagnose correctly can be life threatening. A number of serious medical conditions cause disturbances in thought and affect, for example stroke, brain injury as well as cancer of the brain, thyroid or adrenal gland. When the grandmother of Mindfulness author, Ellen J. Langer, complained to her doctor that a snake living in her head was giving her headaches, he diagnosed her as senile and refused to investigate further. It was only after her death that an autopsy found the brain tumor that killed her.
Mental disturbance can be caused by heavy metal poisoning - the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland was inspired by real hat makers who were sickened by the mercury used in the manufacture of felt hats.
Drugs of abuse can cause mental disturbances that last long after the drug itself has worn off. Besides the damage that addiction can do to your life and that of your loved ones, drugs, including alcohol, can cause such things as paranoia, anxiety and depression.
It is common for people with psychiatric illnesses to "self-medicate", but this ultimately causes more problems than it solves. Besides the alcoholic drowning their sorrows with drink, alcohol suppresses hallucinations for the schizophrenic. Many times, patients have been warned by their doctors of the tempting danger that drugs hold; especially for the manic-depressive.
Neuroses can be caused by unresolved traumas early in life. For example, childhood sexual abuse and violence, or living through times of famine and war. Having an addicted family member usually causes the entire family to behave in dysfunctional ways that leave lasting scars on everyone.
Perhaps you carry a terrible secret, a secret that you've never told anyone. Carrying the memory of childhood trauma continues to cause damage in adulthood far out of proportion to the original injury. Perhaps it is time to find someone you can trust to share your secret with. The injury you suffered can never be undone, but it is within your power to change how you live with it today.
Mistaking A Mental Illness For A Physical Illness
Mental illnesses can be mistaken as physiological ones. There was a story of a woman who was diagnosed and treated as epileptic when she was a young girl, then suffered for years because the medicine did not relieve her symptoms. It was only when she turned 16 and wanted to get a driver's license that further investigation found she really suffered from anxiety.
For some, part of the diagnosistic process may include CAT scans of the head, blood and urine tests, an electroencephalogram and neurological tests to rule out such things as tumors and poisoning. A psychiatrist will usually do a thyroid panel before treating someone for manic depression or depression.
However, there is no blood test for psychiatric illness; at best blood tests can rule out other physiological conditions. Tests such as Positron Emission Tomography can detect such things as the excessive metabolization of sugar in the right brain hemispheres of manic people, but PET scans are very expensive and so only commonly performed for research purposes.
continued:How A Psychiatric Diagnosis is Made
How Is A Psychiatric Diagnosis Made
Diagnosis of a mental disorder is made from the patient's history, observation of the patient's current behavior, talking with the patient, and psychological diagnostic tests.
A doctor or therapist may administer a Rorschach Inkblot Test, the Thematic Apperception Test, in which you explain what you think to be happening in some pictures, and the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory in which you answer a lengthy questionnaire about your thoughts and feelings. An IQ test may also be part of the workup.
If you don't have the money to pay for treatment you may still have options depending on where you live. Even in the United States, which does not have publicly funded health care for most illnesses, there are government-supported mental health clinics in many communities, as well as private non-profit clinics that charge their patients based on their ability to pay.
Many psychologists and psychiatrists offer sliding scales, where they charge lower income patients less money. Not everyone offers this, so you have to call around.
Some psychiatric medications are expensive; treatment with Abilify or Seroquel for schizophrenia costs thousands of dollars a year. The government might assist in the cost of your medicine, and some drug companies offer "compassionate drug plans" in which qualifying patients receive their medicine free of charge directly from the drug company. In addition, the drug companies often give psychiatrists free advertising sample packs of drugs, which the psychiatrists then give to their patients who cannot afford to buy them.
continue story below
Last Updated: 07 December 2015
Reviewed by Harry Croft, MD