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How do I know if I have a mental illness?

March 22, 2022
Reviewed by: Rajnandini Rathod

How often do we say, “I am depressed” when all we are feeling is a bit of sadness over a trivial issue? We call our bosses psychos and our juniors retards and some of our choicest name-callings involves words like mad, schizo, demented, hyper, etc. These are some of the most severe types of mental illnesses that we have been tossing around in our everyday conversation to describe normal behaviour. While this may seem harmless and light-hearted, it creates a lot of misconceptions about mental illness. Also, the real problem arises when these mental problems occur and we aren’t able to identify it, simply because we have trivialized it!  In such a scenario, how do you ask yourself, “am I mentally ill?”

What is mental illness?

When you are struggling to understand what is mental illness, a definition that is backed by reputable sources and science can help clear things up. The American Psychiatric Association defines mental illnesses as health conditions that involve changes in emotion, thinking or behaviour (or a combination of these).   

These mental health conditions can vary from mild and manageable, to moderate and to severe requiring specialized care. These conditions can be described under two broad categories: Any Mental Illness (AMI) and Serious Mental Illness (SMI). AMI includes all recognized mental illnesses. SMI is a smaller and more severe subset of AMI.

Any Mental Illness: Any mental illness (AMI) is a diagnosable mental, behavioural, or emotional disorder that does not include developmental or substance use disorder. AMI can range from no impairment to mild, moderate, and even severe impairment.   

Serious Mental Illness: Serious mental illness (SMI) is a mental, behavioural, or emotional disorder arising from a serious functional impairment, and significantly affects or restricts one or more major life activities. SMI includes disorders such as bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder, schizophrenia, and schizoaffective disorder. 

How can I tell if I have a mental health condition?

Most mental health conditions can be managed provided help is sought at the earliest. While you cannot judge for yourself whether you have a certain mental health condition, you can look for signs that may point to some mental disturbances. Especially, if these changes in thoughts, behaviours or moods persist beyond 2 weeks and start interfering with your work, social and personal life. Some warning signs of mental illness to look out for include:

  • Extreme paranoia, worry, or anxiety
  • Continuing sadness or irritability
  • Intense changes in moods
  • Social withdrawal
  • Acute changes in eating or sleeping pattern

The signs and symptoms of mental illnesses vary depending on which stage the mental illness has progressed. If you suspect that you or your loved one is undergoing some mental stress then do check the following mental illness symptoms checklist and compare it to your experience. 

  • Prolonged sadness
  • Poor concentration 
  • Unexplained or intense fears 
  • Pointless feelings of guilt
  • Extreme mood changes
  • Constant irritation
  • Violent responses and reactions
  • Distancing oneself from friends and family
  • Failure to maintain relationships 
  • Inability to work or study
  • Talking nonsensical things
  • Extreme fatigue or lethargy 
  • Difficulty sleeping or sleeping too long  
  • Detachment from reality 
  • Delusions  
  • Paranoia
  • Hallucinations  
  • Excessive alcohol or drug abuse
  • Loss of appetite or overeating
  • Reduced or absent sex drive
  • Self-harm or suicidal thoughts

If you feel that you are experiencing any of the signs above, then it’s time to visit a counsellor or mental health professional. They will be able to give you a proper diagnosis of your condition. 

What causes mental illness? 

There are many reasons for why someone can be affected by mental illnesses. It could be inherited, environmental and social setting, accidents-related or physical. 

Inherited traits – Mental illnesses can be genetic. If you have blood relatives who are suffering from mental illnesses then chances are you may be affected, and probably certain life situations could trigger it. 

Environmental factors – Exposure to drugs, alcohols, toxins while in the womb, stressful life situations like exposure to extreme financial problems, death of loved ones, divorce, traumatic events like war, physical and mental abuse at home, school or work, childhood abuse, brain injury due to accidents or violent blow to the head or ongoing medical conditions like diabetes, cancer, etc. All these factors can increase the chances of mental illnesses.

Brain chemistry – Neurotransmitters are naturally occurring brain chemicals that transmit signals to other parts of the brain and body. When the neural networks involving these chemicals are affected, the function of nerve receptors and nerve systems change, causing depression and other emotional disorders.

Prevention of mental illness, is it possible? 

Our mental health can change depending on the situations in our lives. Of course, we cannot control genetic and all environmental factors, however, there are a few things we can do to ensure a stable mental frame of mind. 

Exercise regularly – Physical activity releases endorphins in your body. These happy hormones help you feel energetic and full of life. Being physically fit will also help you get better body confidence as well as give you the stamina to pursue outdoor hobbies which are great for the mind and body rejuvenation. 

Get good quality sleep – Not just the quantity but the quality of your sleep matters too. When you are sleeping, toxins are flushed from your body and brain and new brain cells are created. If you don’t sleep well these functions are hampered which lead to problems like brain fog, confusion, anxiety, etc. 

Eat a well-balanced diet – Too much sugar, carbs and unhealthy fats can hamper the working of your body which in turn can affect your brain. Eat a diet that is rich in Omega 3 fatty acids as it is a major building block of the brain, healthy proteins as it is a satiating and good amount of fibre to keep your bowels running smoothly. A good functioning body can be a source of great comfort. 

Practice mindfulness – Constant negative thoughts can have a severe impact on your mental wellbeing. So, it’s best to calm the negative voices in your head by meditating daily. You can also start a gratitude journal where you write things you are grateful for in your life every day or at least once a week. 

Have open conversations – Keeping your thoughts and feelings buried inside you isn’t healthy. Have frank conversations with your loved ones or friends about your feelings, emotions, hopes and dreams. If you feel your friends or family don’t have enough time, then maybe seek out a counsellor because talking can be very therapeutic.  

When it comes to others, you too have the ability to stop a mental problem from getting too aggravated. If you recognize the early signs of mental illness in a friend or a colleague then help them get the support they require.  Spread awareness about mental health in your offices, schools and communities. Address issues like bullying, sexual harassment, physical abuse, domestic abuse, gender inequality as all these can lead to some or the other form of mental disorders like depression, anxiety attacks, etc. 

In India, when it comes to mental illness, stigma around it prevents people from seeking help. The World Health Organization (WHO) and Mental Health Research UK, shared some worrying statistics about mental illness in India:

• 7.5 % Indians suffer from some mental disorder 

• Nearly 20% Indians will suffer from mental illness in the future

• 56 million Indians suffer from depression 

• 38 million Indians suffer from anxiety disorders

The results of the National Mental Health Survey (NMHS) conducted between 2015 to 2016 is even more distressing. The survey found that almost  80% of those suffering from mental disorders failed to receive treatment for over a year. It also highlighted the large treatment gaps in mental healthcare,  ranging from 28% to 83% across different mental disorders. 

In closing, It is important to understand that mental illnesses are manageable. Mild to moderate mental illnesses can be treated with counselling and more severe forms of mental illnesses can be treated with a combination of psychotherapy and medication. If you feel that you are suffering from some mental illness then seek help without hesitation because it’s time, we made mental health a priority! 


Mental Illness. National Institute of Mental Health

What Is Mental Illness? American Psychiatric Association

(2018, Aug) How do I know if I have a mental health condition?

Radhakrishnan. R., Uttekar. P. (2020, Oct) What Are the 5 Signs of Mental Illness?

Mental illness

Anisha Bhatia. A. (2020, Oct) World Mental Health Day 2020: In Numbers, The Burden of Mental Disorders in India.

(2021, Oct) Prevention and mental health

Bernadine. M. (2021, April) Understanding India’s mental health crisis