There is no legal definition of what constitutes mental illness, and the language used in relation to mental health can be imprecise and confusing. In HE preference is generally given to the term 'mental health difficulties' or 'someone who has experienced mental or emotional distress'.
Mental distress, mental ill health issues, mental health problems: all are umbrella terms that you might see in use. They are relatively non-specific and usually refer to the full spectrum of mental health issues.
Mental illness or mental disorder: these terms usually relate to someone who has a medically diagnosed mental health condition.
Severe mental illness: this expression is usually applied to someone whose diagnosis means that they are likely to experience psychotic symptoms. Psychosis is the medical term used to describe a severe mental disorder in which contact with reality is lost or highly distorted. Examples of severe mental illness include schizophrenia and manic depression, major depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
It is good practice to adopt the terminology used by those experiencing mental health difficulties. Certain terminology should be avoided, such as the use of labels referring to one aspect of a person, such as calling them 'a schizophrenic', as well as the casual use of words such as mad or crazy. The way in which these terms become accepted as normal conversation is very damaging.
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Depression is not ordinary sadness. It significantly lowers mood and can result in feeling hopeless, worthless, unmotivated and exhausted. It can affect sleep, appetite and self-esteem, and interfere with daily activities, and so can have a profound effect on study. It often goes hand in hand with anxiety.
Anxiety can cause constant, extreme and unrealistic worry about an aspect of daily life. It may lead to restlessness and problems in sleeping, an increased heart rate and tense and shaky muscles. It can be incapacitating. Someone who is highly anxious may have panic attacks – sudden and unexpected bouts of intense terror rather than a response to real danger. It may be hard to breathe, heart rate may rise and feeling faint or trembling can occur.
A syndrome which can follow exposure to unusual stress or trauma (such as an accident, or the experience of war or torture). It may lead to flashbacks, nightmares and periods of intense anxiety.
A phobia is a fear of a particular situation or object, and can cause major disruption to people’s lives. Agoraphobia can result in a person being afraid to go out; claustrophobia is a fear of enclosed spaces. Both of these phobias can have a major impact on study.
Many people are mildly obsessional. However, someone with OCD feels that they have no control over certain thoughts or ideas that are highly disturbing to them, but which seem to force themselves onto them. They are often but not always accompanied by fears of disease. These compulsive thoughts or obsessions create unbearable anxiety which can only be relieved by performing a particular ritual (such as hand washing or compulsive checking) to neutralise them. There may be concerns about cleanliness and touching objects that have been handled by others. This may affect a student’s ability to use libraries, computing services and laboratory equipment. OCD symptoms can cause severe distress, social isolation and significant procrastination, and they can be accompanied by depression.
Eating disorders (such as anorexia and bulimia) involve serious disturbances in eating behaviour, such as extreme and unhealthy reduction of food intake or severe overeating, as well as feelings of distress or concern about body shape or weight. People who have eating disorders can experience a wide range of physical health complications, including serious heart conditions and kidney failure, which may lead to death. An eating disorder can also be a response to underlying mental distress such as anxiety or depression.
Manic depression, or bipolar affective disorder, is a complex disorder which involves extreme mood swings from severe depression and lethargy to elation and overactivity. During manic episodes people tend to believe they are coping well, but they will have lost some contact with reality and will be hyperactive, uninhibited, reckless, full of grandiose ideas and seemingly random thoughts, sometimes with psychotic symptoms such as delusions of persecution or disease. At other times they may go through periods of depression, which may be extreme. Not everyone experiences both extremes and there are a number of different types of manic depressive disorder.
Schizophrenia is one of the most debilitating of all mental illnesses and can have a very serious and long-term impact on everyday living. Contact with reality is sometimes confused, but there may be long periods where symptoms are well controlled. It causes distorted thoughts and perceptions, and symptoms may include hearing voices and seeing things that other people cannot. People with schizophrenia may experience delusions and believe that other people can read their minds and control their thoughts. Their behaviour may appear disturbed (e.g. talking to themselves) and excessively fearful. However, symptoms may be controlled for long periods of time and therefore may have little or no impact on education.