Mental health is a continuum that we all move across throughout our lives. At one end we are doing well and thriving, in the middle we’re finding ways to cope with struggles and challenges, and at the far end those struggles are interfering with central aspects of our lives — school, work, relationships — and negatively impacting our overall well-being. In the simplest definition, mental health conditions like depression and anxiety disorders are diagnosed when someone experiences the concerning end of the continuum for a period of weeks or months. Like many physical illnesses, these conditions are the result of a convergence of internal, external, and societal factors.
Mental health conditions are common in the United States, with 1 in 5 adults experiencing a mental health condition each year. Most people will show their first symptoms of a mental health condition between their mid-teens and 20s, though this can differ depending on factors like gender and the type of condition. Some people may experience comorbidity — or managing multiple mental health conditions simultaneously, like depression and an eating disorder.
The most common types of mental health conditions (in order from most to least prevalent) within the United States are:
- Depression: A mood disorder that causes a persistent feeling of sadness and can impact ability to function.
- Anxiety disorders: Conditions like social anxiety disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), characterized by varying degrees and types of excessive fear and worry.
- Substance use disorders: Occurs when a person continues to use substances after usage has led to health issues or problems at work, school, or home.
- Eating disorders: Conditions like anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorders that involve severe disturbances in people’s body image, eating behaviors, and related thoughts and emotions.
- Bipolar disorder: A condition that involves severe and uncontrollable mood shifts that include emotional highs (mania) and lows (depression).
- Schizophrenia: A serious mental illness that interferes with a person’s ability to think clearly, manage emotions, make decisions, and relate to others.
As many as 90% of people who die by suicide had a diagnosable mental health condition at the time of their death, though in some cases the condition had not been diagnosed. The conditions most often associated with suicide are depression and substance use disorders.
While mental health conditions can impact thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in negative ways, these conditions are also treatable. For many people, the right treatment and self-care plan allows them to recover from the condition permanently or for a period of time and live a full, purposeful life.
When developing stories about people living with mental health conditions, it’s important to ensure the condition isn’t being used to create an incapacity that can be exploited, to justify violent or frightening behavior, or to socially or physically isolate a character. Rather, look for opportunities to accurately and empathetically show the realities of these conditions — both the struggles and the opportunities for hope, help, and healing.