Your Health

Understanding Mental Illness

Mental illnesses are brain disorders that affect an individual’s emotions, moods, behavior, relationships, and ability to think clearly.  Just like other diseases of the body, mental illnesses can be profoundly debilitating and may severely limit a person’s ability to function.

Anyone, regardless of age, race, religion or socioeconomic status, can develop a mental illness. In fact, statistics show that a majority of people will experience a mental disorder – with symptoms ranging from mild to severe – at some point in their life.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, mental illness is widespread in the United States and around the world. Each year, one in four adult Americans, or more than 57 million, suffers from a mental disorder, with only a small fraction receiving treatment.  More than half of these adults have more than one mental illness at a time. Meanwhile, an estimated 10 percent of U.S. children and teens struggle with a mental disorder, according to the U.S. Surgeon General – again with only a fraction receiving treatment.

Complex yet treatable
Mental illnesses are complex diseases caused by the interaction of genetic and environmental factors, such as inherited traits, life experiences, and changes in brain chemistry. They are not caused by character defects and are not a sign of personal weakness. If left untreated, they can wreak havoc in a person’s life, often leading to unemployment, homelessness, shattered families and relationships, substance abuse, crime, incarceration, and suicide.

While the damage caused by mental illness is enormous, the good news is that most mental disorders are highly treatable. Effective therapies, medications and services allow most people to live satisfying lives with their symptoms either greatly reduced or eliminated. Treatment also reduces the cost to communities through lower rates of crime and incarceration, and results in less demand for medical and social services.

The challenge of dual diagnoses
One issue often overlooked in treating mental illness is the fact that brain disorders frequently occur together with substance abuse. Research shows that approximately 50 percent of individuals with severe mental illness also abuse alcohol or drugs. A person with a “dual diagnosis” of both mental illness and substance abuse is far more likely to become homeless, violent, jailed, or to contract other diseases, such as AIDS. They often cycle repeatedly through the health care and criminal justice systems. In addition, they are highly likely to relapse after a period of recovery or sobriety.

To be effective, treatment for individuals with dual diagnoses must address both problems in an integrated health care setting that bundles support and services for both issues. Research suggests that when these patients successfully overcome their addictions, their response to treatment for their mental illness improves dramatically.

Learn more

Mental illnesses cause a wide variety of symptoms and can affect behavior in many different ways. Common disorders include:


One of the most frequently diagnosed mental disorders among children, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, affects an individual’s ability to stay focused and concentrate. Depending on the subtype, it can also cause high activity levels as well as impulsiveness.

According to the NIMH, 4 percent of U.S. adults and 9 percent of U.S. teens, predominantly boys, are diagnosed with ADHD each year.  ADHD frequently occurs with other disorders, such as anxiety, depression, oppositional-defiant disorder, bipolar disorder, and learning disabilities. While ADHD is not curable, it can be successfully managed and most individuals go on to lead productive, independent lives.

For more information about ADHD, please visit the website for the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Anxiety disorders

Everyone experiences worry and concern on occasion, but for some people, anxiety can become acute and prolonged, eventually reaching the point that it interferes with daily living and negatively affects their quality of life.

There are a wide variety of anxiety disorders, including obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, agoraphobia, and panic disorder.  Together they are the most frequently diagnosed mental illnesses in the United States. In any given year, approximately 18 percent of U.S. adults and 25 percent of U.S. teens suffer from an anxiety disorder. Women are 60 percent more likely to experience an anxiety disorder than men, but the illnesses occur at a high rate among both genders.

For more information about anxiety disorders, please visit the website for the National Alliance on Mental Illness.  

Bipolar disorder

Often referred to as manic depression, bipolar disorder causes dramatic shifts in mood and activity levels that make it difficult to function in daily life. These reoccurring episodes of mania, or high moods, and low moods, or depression, can last anywhere from one day to months at a time.

Research suggests that nearly 3 percent of U.S. adults and teens suffer from bipolar disorder. It affects both men and women at the same rate. People living with untreated bipolar disorder often experience problems with work or school as well as damaged relationships.

For more information about bipolar disorder, please visit the website for the National Alliance on Mental Illness.  


Nearly everyone feels down or sad at times, but if the feelings last for more than two weeks and prevent an individual from functioning normally, depression is often to blame.

Depression encompasses a range of disorders including major depression, post-partum depression, psychotic depression, and seasonal affective disorder. One of the most commonly diagnosed mental illnesses in the United States, major depression affects approximately 7 percent of U.S. adults and 11 percent of U.S. teens in any given year. Women are 70 percent more likely than men to experience depression during their lifetime with the average age of onset at 32.

For more information about depression, please visit the website for the National Alliance on Mental Illness


Approximately 1 percent of the U.S. population suffers from schizophrenia, a complex and severely disabling disorder that affects a person’s thought processes, emotions, and perceptions. Symptoms can range from mild paranoia and delusions to full-blown psychosis.

If left untreated, individuals with schizophrenia are at a significantly higher risk for homelessness, substance abuse, incarceration, and suicide. While there is no cure for the disease, with the help of medication and support services, people living with schizophrenia can go on to experience healthy and productive lives.

For more information about schizophrenia, please visit the website for the National Alliance on Mental Illness

Sources:  National Institute of Mental Health; National Alliance on Mental Illness; and the Mayo Clinic.

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For mental health counseling, call Whatcom Counseling & Psychiatric Clinic at (360) 676-2220 or e-mail, or simply go the main clinic at 3645 E. McLeod. Whatcom Counseling offers limited walk-in mental health evaluations, call ahead for times and days.

Whatcom Counseling also offers drug, alcohol, chemical or substance abuse services, call for an appointment.


If you fear for your safety or the safety of others, call 911.

If you are in crisis and need to talk to someone right away, call the Crisis Line:
TTY 1-425-339-3301


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