Cultural Diversity and Mental Illness

The U.S. mental health system is not well equipped to meet the needs of racial and ethnic minority populations. Racial and ethnic minority groups are generally considered to be underserved by the mental health services system. A constellation of barriers deters ethnic and racial minority group members from seeking treatment, and if individual members of groups succeed in accessing services, their treatment may be inappropriate to meet their needs.

Awareness of the problem dates back to the 1960s and 1970s, with the rise of the civil rights and community mental health movements and with successive waves of immigration from Central America, the Caribbean, and Asia. These historical forces spurred greater recognition of the problems that minority groups confront in relation to mental health services.

Research documents that many members of minority groups fear, or feel ill at ease with, the mental health system. These groups experience it as the product of white, European culture, shaped by research primarily on white, European populations. They may find only clinicians who represent a white middle-class orientation, with its cultural values and beliefs, as well as its biases, misconceptions, and stereotypes of other cultures.

Research and clinical practice have propelled advocates and mental health professionals to press for “linguistically and culturally competent services” to improve utilization and effectiveness of treatment for different cultures. Culturally competent services incorporate respect for and understanding of, ethnic and racial groups, as well as their histories, traditions, beliefs, and value systems. Without culturally competent services, the failure to serve racial and ethnic minority groups adequately is expected to worsen, given the huge demographic growth in these populations predicted over the next decades.

Introduction to Cultural Diversity and Demographics

The Federal government officially designates four major racial or ethnic minority groups in the United States: African American (black), Asian/Pacific Islander, Hispanic American (Latino),and Native American/American Indian/Alaska Native/Native Hawaiian (referred to subsequently as “American Indians”). There are many other racial or ethnic minorities and considerable diversity within each of the four groupings listed above. The representation of the four officially designated groups in the U.S. population in 1999 is as follows: African Americans constitute the largest group, at 12.8 percent of the U.S. population; followed by Hispanics (11.4 percent), Asian/Pacific Islanders (4.0 percent), and American Indians (0.9 percent). Hispanic Americans are among the fastest-growing groups. Because their population growth outpaces that of African Americans, they are projected to be the predominant minority group (24.5 percent of the U.S. population) by the year 2050.

Racial and ethnic populations differ from one another and from the larger society with respect to culture. The term “culture” is used loosely to denote a common heritage and set of beliefs, norms, and values. The cultures with which members of minority racial and ethnic groups identify often are markedly different from industrial societies of the West. The phrase “cultural identity” specifies a reference group—an identifiable social entity with whom a person identifies and to whom he or she looks for standards of behavior. Of course, within any given group, an individual’s cultural identity may also involve language, country of origin, acculturation, gender, age, class, religious/spiritual beliefs, sexual orientation, and physical disabilities. Many people have multiple ethnic or cultural identities.

The historical experiences of ethnic and minority groups in the United States are reflected in differences in economic, social, and political status. The most measurable difference relates to income. Many racial and ethnic minority groups have limited financial resources. In 1994, families from these groups were at least three times as likely as white families to have incomes placing them below the Federally established poverty line. The disparity is even greater when considering extreme poverty—family incomes at a level less than half of the poverty threshold—and is also large when considering children and older persons. Although some Asian Americans are somewhat better off financially than other minority groups, they still are more than one and a half times more likely than whites to live in poverty. Poverty disproportionately affects minority women and their children. The effects of poverty are compounded by differences in total value of accumulated assets, or total wealth.

Lower socioeconomic status—in terms of income, education, and occupation—has been strongly linked to mental illness. It has been known for decades that people in the lowest socioeconomic strata are about two and a half times more likely than those in the highest strata to have a mental disorder. The reasons for the association between lower socioeconomic status and mental illness are not well understood. It may be that a combination of greater stress in the lives of the poor and greater vulnerability to a variety of stressors leads to some mental disorders, such as depression. Poor women, for example, experience more frequent, threatening, and uncontrollable life events than do members of the population at large. It also may be that the impairments associated with mental disorders lead to lower socioeconomic status.

Cultural identity imparts distinct patterns of beliefs and practices that have implications for the willingness to seek, and the ability to respond to, mental health services. These include coping styles and ties to family and community, discussed below.

Coping Styles

Cultural differences can be reflected in differences in preferred styles of coping with day-to-day problems. Consistent with a cultural emphasis on restraint, certain Asian American groups, for example, encourage a tendency not to dwell on morbid or upsetting thoughts, believing that avoidance of troubling internal events is warranted more than recognition and outward expression. They have little willingness to behave in a fashion that might disrupt social harmony. Their emphasis on willpower is similar to the tendency documented among African Americans to minimize the significance of stress and, relatedly, to try to prevail in the face of adversity through increased striving.

Culturally rooted traditions of religious beliefs and practices carry important consequences for willingness to seek mental health services. In many traditional societies, mental health problems can be viewed as spiritual concerns and as occasions to renew one’s commitment to a religious or spiritual system of belief and to engage in prescribed religious or spiritual forms of practice. African Americans and a number of ethnic groups, when faced with personal difficulties, have been shown to seek guidance from religious figures.

Many people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds believe that religion and spirituality favorably impact upon their lives and that well-being, good health, and religious commitment or faith are integrally intertwined. Religion and spirituality are deemed important because they can provide comfort, joy, pleasure, and meaning to life as well as be means to deal with death, suffering, pain, injustice, tragedy, and stressful experiences in the life of an individual or family. In the family/community-centered perception of mental illness held by Asians and Hispanics, religious organizations are viewed as an enhancement or substitute when the family is unable to cope or assist with the problem.

Culture also imprints mental health by influencing whether and how individuals experience the discomfort associated with mental illness. When conveyed by tradition and sanctioned by cultural norms, characteristic modes of expressing suffering are sometimes called “idioms of distress.” Idioms of distress often reflect values and themes found in the societies in which they originate.

One of the most common idioms of distress is somatization, the expression of mental distress in terms of physical suffering. Somatization occurs widely and is believed to be especially prevalent among persons from a number of ethnic minority backgrounds (Lu et al., 1995). Epidemiological studies have confirmed that there are relatively high rates of somatization among African Americans. Indeed, somatization resembles an African American folk disorder identified in ethnographic research and is linked to seeking treatment.

A number of idioms of distress are well recognized as culture-bound syndromes and have been included in an appendix to DSM-IV. Among culture-bound syndromes found among some Latino psychiatric patients is ataque de nervios, a syndrome of “uncontrollable shouting, crying, trembling, and aggression typically triggered by a stressful event involving family. . . ” . A Japanese culture-bound syndrome has appeared in that country’s clinical modification of ICD-10. Taijin kyofusho is an intense fear that one’s body or bodily functions give offense to others. Culture-bound syndromes sometimes reflect comprehensive systems of belief, typically emphasizing a need for a balance between opposing forces (e.g., yin/yang, “hot-cold” theory) or the power of supernatural forces. Belief in indigenous disorders and adherence to culturally rooted coping practices are more common among older adults and among persons who are less acculturated. It is not well known how applicable DSM-IV diagnostic criteria are to culturally specific symptom expression and culture-bound syndromes.

Family and Community as Resources

Ties to family and community, especially strong in African, Latino, Asian, and Native American communities, are forged by cultural tradition and by the current and historical need to assist arriving immigrants, to provide a sanctuary against discrimination practiced by the larger society, and to provide a sense of belonging and affirming a centrally held cultural or ethnic identity.

Among Mexican-Americans and Asian Americans relatively high rates of marriage and low rates of divorce, along with a greater tendency to live in extended family households, indicate an orientation toward family. Family solidarity has been invoked to explain relatively low rates among minority groups of placing older people in nursing homes.

The relative economic success of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean Americans has been attributed to family and communal bonds of association. Community organizations and networks established in the United States include rotating credit associations based on lineage, surname, or region of origin. These organizations and networks facilitate the startup of small businesses.

There is evidence of an African American tradition of voluntary organizations and clubs often having political, economic, and social functions and affiliation with religious organizations. African Americans and other racial and ethnic minority groups have drawn upon an extended family tradition in which material and emotional resources are brought to bear from a number of linked households. According to this literature, there is

(a) a high degree of geographical propinquity; (b) a strong sense of family and familial obligation; (c) fluidity of household boundaries, with greater willingness to absorb relatives, both real and fictive, adult and minor, if need arises; (d) frequent interaction with relatives; (e) frequent extended family get-togethers for special occasions and holidays; and (f) a system of mutual aid.
Families play an important role in providing support to individuals with mental health problems. A strong sense of family loyalty means that, despite feelings of stigma and shame, families are an early and important source of assistance in efforts to cope, and that minority families may expect to continue to be involved in the treatment of a mentally ill member (Uba, 1994). Among Mexican American families, researchers have found lower levels of expressed emotion and lower levels of relapse. Other investigators have demonstrated an association between family warmth and a reduced likelihood of relapse.

Epidemiology and Utilization of Services

One of the best ways to identify whether a minority group has problems accessing mental health services is to examine their utilization of services in relation to their need for services. As noted previously, a limitation of contemporary mental health knowledge is the lack of standard measures of “need for treatment” and culturally appropriate assessment tools. Minority group members’ needs, as measured indirectly by their prevalence of mental illness in relation to the U.S. population, should be proportional to their utilization, as measured by their representation in the treatment population. These comparisons turn out to be exceedingly complicated by inadequate understanding of the prevalence of mental disorders among minority groups in the United States. Nationwide studies conducted many years ago overlooked institutional populations, which are disproportionately represented by minority groups. Treatment utilization information on minority groups in relation to whites is more plentiful, yet, a clear understanding of health seeking behavior in various cultures is lacking.

The following paragraphs reveal that disparities abound in treatment utilization: some minority groups are underrepresented in the outpatient treatment population while, at the same time, overrepresented in the inpatient population. Possible explanations for the differences in utilization are discussed in a later section.

African Americans

The prevalence of mental disorders is estimated to be higher among African Americans than among whites. This difference does not appear to be due to intrinsic differences between the races; rather, it appears to be due to socioeconomic differences. When socioeconomic factors are taken into account, the prevalence difference disappears. That is, the socioeconomic status-adjusted rates of mental disorder among African Americans turn out to be the same as those of whites. In other words, it is the lower socioeconomic status of African Americans that places them at higher risk for mental disorders.

African Americans are underrepresented in some outpatient treatment populations, but overrepresented in public inpatient psychiatric care in relation to whites. Their underrepresentation in outpatient treatment varies according to setting, type of provider, and source of payment. The racial gap between African Americans and whites in utilization is smallest, if not nonexistent, in community-based programs and in treatment financed by public sources, especially Medicaid and among older people. The underrepresentation is largest in privately financed care, especially individual outpatient practice, paid for either by fee-for-service arrangements or managed care. As a result, underrepresentation in the outpatient setting occurs more among working and middle-class African Americans, who are privately insured, than among the poor. This suggests that socioeconomic standing alone cannot explain the problem of underutilization.

African Americans are, as noted above, overrepresented in inpatient psychiatric care. Their rate of utilization of psychiatric inpatient care is about double that of whites. This difference is even higher than would be expected on the basis of prevalence estimates. Overrepresentation is found in hospitals of all types except private psychiatric hospitals. While difficult to explain definitively, the problem of overrepresentation in psychiatric hospitals appears more rooted in poverty, attitudes about seeking help, and a lack of community support than in clinician bias in diagnosis and overt racism, which also have been implicated. This line of reasoning posits that poverty, disinclination to seek help, and lack of health and mental health services deemed appropriate, and responsive, as well as community support, are major contributors to delays by African Americans in seeking treatment until symptoms become so severe that they warrant inpatient care.

Finally, African Americans are more likely than whites to use the emergency room for mental health problems. Their overreliance on emergency care for mental health problems is an extension of their overreliance on emergency care for other health problems. The practice of using the emergency room for routine care is generally attributed to a lack of health care providers in the community willing to offer routine treatment to people without insurance.

Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders

The prevalence of mental illness among Asian Americans is difficult to determine for methodological reasons (i.e., population sampling). Although some studies suggest higher rates of mental illness, there is wide variance across different groups of Asian Americans. It is not well known how applicable DSM-IV diagnostic criteria are to culturally specific symptom expression and culture-bound syndromes. With respect to treatment-seeking behavior, Asian Americans are distinguished by extremely low levels at which specialty treatment is sought for mental health problems. Asian Americans have proven less likely than whites, African Americans, and Hispanic Americans to seek care. One national sample revealed that Asian Americans were only a quarter as likely as whites, and half as likely as African Americans and Hispanic Americans, to have sought outpatient treatment. Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders are less likely than whites to be psychiatric inpatients. The reasons for the underutilization of services include the stigma and loss of face over mental health problems, limited English proficiency among some Asian immigrants, different cultural explanations for the problems, and the inability to find culturally competent services. These phenomena are more pronounced for recent immigrants.

Hispanic Americans

Several epidemiological studies revealed few differences between Hispanic Americans and whites in lifetime rates of mental illness. A recent study of Mexican Americans in Fresno County, California, found that Mexican Americans born in the United States had rates of mental disorders similar to those of other U.S. citizens, whereas immigrants born in Mexico had lower rates. A large study conducted in Puerto Rico reported similar rates of mental disorders among residents of that island, compared with those of citizens of the mainland United States.

Although rates of mental illness may be similar to whites in general, the prevalence of particular mental health problems, the manifestation of symptoms, and help-seeking behaviors within Hispanic subgroups need attention and further research. For instance, the prevalence of depressive symptomatology is higher in Hispanic women (46%) than men (almost 20%); yet, the known risk factors do not totally explain the gender difference. Several studies indicate that Puerto Rican and Mexican American women with depressive symptomatology are underrepresented in mental health services and overrepresented in general medical services.

Native Americans

American Indians/Alaska Natives have, like Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, been studied in few epidemiological surveys of mental health and mental disorders. The indications are that depression is a significant problem in many American Indian/Alaska Native communities. One study of a Northwest Indian village found rates of DSM-III-R affective disorder that were notably higher than rates reported from national epidemiological studies. Alcohol abuse and dependence appear also to be especially problematic, occurring at perhaps twice the rate of occurrence found in any other population group. Relatedly, suicide occurs at alarmingly high levels. Among Native American veterans, post-traumatic stress disorder has been identified as especially prevalent in relation to whites. In terms of patterns of utilization, Native Americans are overrepresented in psychiatric inpatient care in relation to whites, with the exception of private psychiatric hospitals.

Barriers to the Receipt of Treatment

The underrepresentation in outpatient treatment of racial and ethnic minority groups appears to be the result of cultural differences as well as financial, organizational, and diagnostic factors. The service system has not been designed to respond to the cultural and linguistic needs presented by many racial and ethnic minorities. What is unresolved are the relative contribution and significance of each factor for distinct minority groups.

Help-Seeking Behavior

Among adults, the evidence is considerable that persons from minority backgrounds are less likely than are whites to seek outpatient treatment in the specialty mental health sector. This is not the case for emergency department care, from which African Americans are more likely than whites to seek care for mental health problems, as noted above. Language, like economic and accessibility differences, can play an important role in why people from other cultures do not seek treatment.

Mistrust

The reasons why racial and ethnic minority groups are less apt to seek help appear to be best studied among African Americans. By comparison with whites, African Americans are more likely to give the following reasons for not seeking professional help in the face of depression: lack of time, fear of hospitalization, and fear of treatment. Mistrust among African Americans may stem from their experiences of segregation, racism, and discrimination. African Americans have experienced racist slights in their contacts with the mental health system, called “microinsults” by Pierce (1992). Some of these concerns are justified on the basis of research, cited below, revealing clinician bias in overdiagnosis of schizophrenia and underdiagnosis of depression among African Americans.

Lack of trust is likely to operate among other minority groups, according to research about their attitudes toward government-operated institutions rather than toward mental health treatment per se. This is particularly pronounced for immigrant families with relatives who may be undocumented, and hence they are less likely to trust authorities for fear of being reported and having the family member deported. People from El Salvador and Argentina who have experienced imprisonment or watched the government murder family members and engage in other atrocities may have an especially strong mistrust of any governmental authority. Within the Asian community, previous refugee experiences of groups such as Vietnamese, Indochinese, and Cambodian immigrants parallel those experienced by Salvadoran and Argentine immigrants. They, too, experienced imprisonment, death of family members or friends, physical abuse, and assault, as well as new stresses upon arriving in the United States.

American Indians’ past experience in this country also imparted lack of trust of government. Those living on Indian reservations are particularly fearful of sharing any information with white clinicians employed by the government. As with African Americans, the historical relationship of forced control, segregation, racism, and discrimination has affected their ability to trust a white majority population.

Stigma

The stigma of mental illness is another factor preventing African Americans from seeking treatment, but not at a rate significantly different from that of whites. Both African American and white groups report that embarrassment hinders them from seeking treatment. In general, African Americans tend to deny the threat of mental illness and strive to overcome mental health problems through self-reliance and determination. Stigma, denial, and self-reliance are likely explanations why other minority groups do not seek treatment, but their contribution has not been evaluated empirically, owing in part to the difficulty of conducting this type of research. One of the few studies of Asian Americans identified the barriers of stigma, suspiciousness, and a lack of awareness about the availability of services. Cultural factors tend to encourage the use of family, traditional healers, and informal sources of care rather than treatment-seeking behavior, as noted earlier.

Cost

Cost is yet another factor discouraging utilization of mental health services. Minority persons are less likely than whites to have private health insurance, but this factor alone may have little bearing on access. Public sources of insurance and publicly supported treatment programs fill some of the gap. Even among working class and middle-class African Americans who have private health insurance, there is underrepresentation of African Americans in outpatient treatment. Yet studies focusing only on poor women, most of whom were members of minority groups, have found cost and lack of insurance to be barriers to treatment. The discrepancies in findings suggest that much research remains to be performed on the relative importance of cost, cultural, and organizational barriers, and poverty and income limitations across the spectrum of racial and ethnic and minority groups.

Clinician Bias

Advocates and experts alike have asserted that bias in clinician judgment is one of the reasons for overutilization of inpatient treatment by African Americans. Bias in clinician judgment is thought to be reflected in overdiagnosis or misdiagnosis of mental disorders. Since diagnosis is heavily reliant on behavioral signs and patients’ reporting of the symptoms, rather than on laboratory tests, clinician judgment plays an enormous role in the diagnosis of mental disorders. The strongest evidence of clinician bias is apparent for African Americans with schizophrenia and depression. Several studies found that African Americans were more likely than were whites to be diagnosed with schizophrenia, yet less likely to be diagnosed with depression.

In addition to problems of overdiagnosis or misdiagnosis, there may well be a problem of underdiagnosis among minority groups, such as Asian Americans, who are seen as “problem-free”. The presence and extent of this type of clinician bias are not known and need to be investigated.

Improving Treatment for Minority Groups

The previous paragraphs have documented underutilization of treatment, less help-seeking behavior, inappropriate diagnosis, and other problems that have beset racial and ethnic minority groups with respect to mental health treatment. This kind of evidence has fueled the widespread perception of mental health treatment as being uninviting, inappropriate, or not as effective for minority groups as for whites. The Schizophrenia Patient Outcome Research Team demonstrated that African Americans were less likely than others to have received treatment that conformed to recommended practices. Inferior treatment outcomes are widely assumed but are difficult to prove, especially because of sampling, questionnaire, and other design issues, as well as problems in studying patients who drop out of treatment after one session or who otherwise terminate prematurely. In a classic study, 50 percent of Asian Americans versus 30 percent of whites dropped out of treatment early. However, the disparity in dropout rates may have abated more recently. One of the few studies of clinical outcomes, a pre- versus post-treatment study, found that African Americans fared more poorly than did other minority groups treated as outpatients in the Los Angeles area. Earlier studies from the 1970s and 1980s had given inconsistent results.

Ethnopsychopharmacology

There is mounting awareness that ethnic and cultural influences can alter an individual’s responses to medications (pharmacotherapies). The relatively new field of ethnopsychopharmacology investigates cultural variations and differences that influence the effectiveness of pharmacotherapies used in the mental health field. These differences are both genetic and psychosocial in nature. They range from genetic variations in drug metabolism to cultural practices that affect diet, medication adherence, placebo effect, and simultaneous use of traditional and alternative healing methods. Just a few examples are provided to illustrate ethnic and racial differences.

Pharmacotherapies given by mouth usually enter the circulation after absorption from the stomach. From the circulation they are distributed throughout the body (including the brain for psychoactive drugs) and then metabolized, usually in the liver, before they are cleared and eliminated from the body. The rate of metabolism affects the amount of the drug in the circulation. A slow rate of metabolism leaves more drug in the circulation. Too much drug in the circulation typically leads to heightened side effects. A fast rate of metabolism, on the other hand, leaves less drug in the circulation. Too little drug in the circulation reduces its effectiveness.

There is wide racial and ethnic variation in drug metabolism. This is due to genetic variations in drug-metabolizing enzymes (which are responsible for breaking down drugs in the liver). These genetic variations alter the activity of several drug-metabolizing enzymes. Each drug-metabolizing enzyme normally breaks down not just one type of pharmacotherapy, but usually several types. Since most of the ethnic variation comes in the form of inactivation or reduction in activity in the enzymes, the result is higher amounts of medication in the blood, triggering untoward side effects.

For example, 33 percent of African Americans and 37 percent of Asians are slow metabolizers of several antipsychotic medications and antidepressants (such as tricyclic antidepressants and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors). This awareness should lead to more cautious prescribing practices, which usually entail starting patients at lower doses in the beginning of treatment. Unfortunately, just the opposite typically had been the case with African American patients and antipsychotic drugs. Clinicians in psychiatric emergency services prescribed more oral doses and more injections of antipsychotic medications to African American patients. These are the kinds of experiences that likely contribute to the mistrust of mental health services reported among African Americans.

Psychosocial factors also can play an important role in ethnic variation. Compliance with dosing may be hindered by communication difficulties; side effects can be misinterpreted or carry different connotations; some groups may be more responsive to placebo treatment; and reliance on psychoactive traditional and alternative healing methods (such as medicinal plants and herbs) may result in interactions with prescribed pharmacotherapies. The result could be greater side effects and enhanced or reduced effectiveness of the pharmacotherapy, depending on the agents involved and their concentrations. Greater awareness of ethnopsychopharmacology is expected to improve treatment effectiveness for racial and ethnic minorities.

The term Latino/a refers to all persons of Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, or other Central and South American or Spanish origin.

Acculturation refers to the “social distance” separating members of an ethnic or racial group from the wider society in areas of beliefs and values and primary group relations (work, social clubs, family, friends). Greater acculturation thus reflects greater adoption of mainstream beliefs and practices and entry into primary group relations.

Anxiety Disorders

Anxiety Disorders affect about 40 million American adults age 18 years and older (about 18%) in a given year,1 causing them to be filled with fearfulness and uncertainty. Unlike the relatively mild, brief anxiety caused by a stressful event (such as speaking in public or a first date), anxiety disorders last at least 6 months and can get worse if they are not treated. Anxiety disorders commonly occur along with other mental or physical illnesses, including alcohol or substance abuse, which may mask anxiety symptoms or make them worse. In some cases, these other illnesses need to be treated before a person will respond to treatment for the anxiety disorder.

Effective therapies for anxiety disorders are available, and research is uncovering new treatments that can help most people with anxiety disorders lead productive, fulfilling lives. If you think you have an anxiety disorder, you should seek information and treatment right away.

This lesson will:

  • describe the symptoms of anxiety disorders,
  • explain the role of research in understanding the causes of these conditions,
  • describe effective treatments,
  • help you learn how to obtain treatment and work with a doctor or therapist, and
  • suggest ways to make treatment more effective.


The following anxiety disorders will be discussed:

  • panic disorder,
  • obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD),
  • post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD),
  • social phobia (or social anxiety disorder),
  • specific phobias, and
  • generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).


Each anxiety disorder has different symptoms, but all the symptoms cluster around excessive, irrational fear and dread.

Panic Disorder

  • “For me, a panic attack is almost a violent experience. I feel disconnected from reality. I feel like I’m losing control in a very extreme way. My heart pounds really hard, I feel like I can’t get my breath, and there’s an overwhelming feeling that things are crashing in on me.”
  • “It started 10 years ago, when I had just graduated from college and started a new job. I was sitting in a business seminar in a hotel and this thing came out of the blue. I felt like I was dying.”
  • “In between attacks there is this dread and anxiety that it’s going to happen again. I’m afraid to go back to places where I’ve had an attack. Unless I get help, there soon won’t be anyplace where I can go and feel safe from panic.”


Panic disorder is a real illness that can be successfully treated. It is characterized by sudden attacks of terror, usually accompanied by a pounding heart, sweatiness, weakness, faintness, or dizziness. During these attacks, people with panic disorder may flush or feel chilled; their hands may tingle or feel numb; and they may experience nausea, chest pain, or smothering sensations. Panic attacks usually produce a sense of unreality, a fear of impending doom, or a fear of losing control.

A fear of one’s own unexplained physical symptoms is also a symptom of panic disorder. People having panic attacks sometimes believe they are having heart attacks, losing their minds, or on the verge of death. They can’t predict when or where an attack will occur, and between episodes many worry intensely and dread the next attack.

Panic attacks can occur at any time, even during sleep. An attack usually peaks within 10 minutes, but some symptoms may last much longer.

Panic disorder affects about 6 million American adults1 and is twice as common in women as men.2 Panic attacks often begin in late adolescence or early adulthood,2 but not everyone who experiences panic attacks will develop panic disorder. Many people have just one attack and never have another. The tendency to develop panic attacks appears to be inherited.3

People who have full-blown, repeated panic attacks can become very disabled by their condition and should seek treatment before they start to avoid places or situations where panic attacks have occurred. For example, if a panic attack happened in an elevator, someone with panic disorder may develop a fear of elevators that could affect the choice of a job or an apartment, and restrict where that person can seek medical attention or enjoy entertainment.

Some people’s lives become so restricted that they avoid normal activities, such as grocery shopping or driving. About one-third become housebound or are able to confront a feared situation only when accompanied by a spouse or other trusted person. 2 When the condition progresses this far, it is called agoraphobia, or fear of open spaces.

Early treatment can often prevent agoraphobia, but people with panic disorder may sometimes go from doctor to doctor for years and visit the emergency room repeatedly before someone correctly diagnoses their condition. This is unfortunate, because panic disorder is one of the most treatable of all the anxiety disorders, responding in most cases to certain kinds of medication or certain kinds of cognitive psychotherapy, which help change thinking patterns that lead to fear and anxiety.

Panic disorder is often accompanied by other serious problems, such as depression, drug abuse, or alcoholism.4,5 These conditions need to be treated separately. Symptoms of depression include feelings of sadness or hopelessness, changes in appetite or sleep patterns, low energy, and difficulty concentrating. Most people with depression can be effectively treated with antidepressant medications, certain types of psychotherapy, or a combination of the two.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

  • “I couldn’t do anything without rituals. They invaded every aspect of my life. Counting really bogged me down. I would wash my hair three times as opposed to once because three was a good luck number and one wasn’t. It took me longer to read because I’d count the lines in a paragraph. When I set my alarm at night, I had to set it to a number that wouldn’t add up to a ’bad’ number.”
  • “I knew the rituals didn’t make sense, and I was deeply ashamed of them, but I couldn’t seem to overcome them until I had therapy.”
  • “Getting dressed in the morning was tough, because I had a routine, and if I didn’t follow the routine, I’d get anxious and would have to get dressed again. I always worried that if I didn’t do something, my parents were going to die. I’d have these terrible thoughts of harming my parents. That was completely irrational, but the thoughts triggered more anxiety and more senseless behavior. Because of the time I spent on rituals, I was unable to do a lot of things that were important to me.”


People with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) have persistent, upsetting thoughts (obsessions) and use rituals (compulsions) to control the anxiety these thoughts produce. Most of the time, the rituals end up controlling them.

For example, if people are obsessed with germs or dirt, they may develop a compulsion to wash their hands over and over again. If they develop an obsession with intruders, they may lock and relock their doors many times before going to bed. Being afraid of social embarrassment may prompt people with OCD to comb their hair compulsively in front of a mirror-sometimes they get “caught” in the mirror and can’t move away from it. Performing such rituals is not pleasurable. At best, it produces temporary relief from the anxiety created by obsessive thoughts.

Other common rituals are a need to repeatedly check things, touch things (especially in a particular sequence), or count things. Some common obsessions include having frequent thoughts of violence and harming loved ones, persistently thinking about performing sexual acts the person dislikes, or having thoughts that are prohibited by religious beliefs. People with OCD may also be preoccupied with order and symmetry, have difficulty throwing things out (so they accumulate), or hoard unneeded items.

Healthy people also have rituals, such as checking to see if the stove is off several times before leaving the house. The difference is that people with OCD perform their rituals even though doing so interferes with daily life and they find the repetition distressing. Although most adults with OCD recognize that what they are doing is senseless, some adults and most children may not realize that their behavior is out of the ordinary.

OCD affects about 2.2 million American adults,1 and the problem can be accompanied by eating disorders,6 other anxiety disorders, or depression.2,4 It strikes men and women in roughly equal numbers and usually appears in childhood, adolescence, or early adulthood.2 One-third of adults with OCD develop symptoms as children, and research indicates that OCD might run in families.

The course of the disease is quite varied. Symptoms may come and go, ease over time, or get worse. If OCD becomes severe, it can keep a person from working or carrying out normal responsibilities at home. People with OCD may try to help themselves by avoiding situations that trigger their obsessions, or they may use alcohol or drugs to calm themselves.

OCD usually responds well to treatment with certain medications and/or exposure-based psychotherapy, in which people face situations that cause fear or anxiety and become less sensitive (desensitized) to them. NIMH is supporting research into new treatment approaches for people whose OCD does not respond well to the usual therapies. These approaches include combination and augmentation (add-on) treatments, as well as modern techniques such as deep brain stimulation.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

  • “I was raped when I was 25 years old. For a long time, I spoke about the rape as though it was something that happened to someone else. I was very aware that it had happened to me, but there was just no feeling.”
  • “Then I started having flashbacks. They kind of came over me like a splash of water. I would be terrified. Suddenly I was reliving the rape. Every instant was startling. I wasn’t aware of anything around me, I was in a bubble, just kind of floating. And it was scary. Having a flashback can wring you out.”
  • “The rape happened the week before Thanksgiving, and I can’t believe the anxiety and fear I feel every year around the anniversary date. It’s as though I’ve seen a werewolf. I can’t relax, can’t sleep, don’t want to be with anyone. I wonder whether I’ll ever be free of this terrible problem.”


Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) develops after a terrifying ordeal that involved physical harm or the threat of physical harm. The person who develops PTSD may have been the one who was harmed, the harm may have happened to a loved one, or the person may have witnessed a harmful event that happened to loved ones or strangers.

PTSD was first brought to public attention in relation to war veterans, but it can result from a variety of traumatic incidents, such as mugging, rape, torture, being kidnapped or held captive, child abuse, car accidents, train wrecks, plane crashes, bombings, or natural disasters such as floods or earthquakes.

People with PTSD may startle easily, become emotionally numb (especially in relation to people with whom they used to be close), lose interest in things they used to enjoy, have trouble feeling affectionate, be irritable, become more aggressive, or even become violent. They avoid situations that remind them of the original incident, and anniversaries of the incident are often very difficult. PTSD symptoms seem to be worse if the event that triggered them was deliberately initiated by another person, as in a mugging or a kidnapping.

Most people with PTSD repeatedly relive the trauma in their thoughts during the day and in nightmares when they sleep. These are called flashbacks. Flashbacks may consist of images, sounds, smells, or feelings, and are often triggered by ordinary occurrences, such as a door slamming or a car backfiring on the street. A person having a flashback may lose touch with reality and believe that the traumatic incident is happening all over again.

Not every traumatized person develops full-blown or even minor PTSD. Symptoms usually begin within 3 months of the incident but occasionally emerge years afterward. They must last more than a month to be considered PTSD. The course of the illness varies. Some people recover within 6 months, while others have symptoms that last much longer. In some people, the condition becomes chronic.

PTSD affects about 7.7 million American adults,1but it can occur at any age, including childhood. Women are more likely to develop PTSD than men,8 and there is some evidence that susceptibility to the disorder may run in families.9 PTSD is often accompanied by depression, substance abuse, or one or more of the other anxiety disorders.

Certain kinds of medication and certain kinds of psychotherapy usually treat the symptoms of PTSD very effectively.

Social Phobia (Social Anxiety Disorder)

  • “In any social situation, I felt fear. I would be anxious before I even left the house, and it would escalate as I got closer to a college class, a party, or whatever. I would feel sick in my stomach-it almost felt like I had the flu. My heart would pound, my palms would get sweaty, and I would get this feeling of being removed from myself and from everybody else.”
  • “When I would walk into a room full of people, I’d turn red and it would feel like everybody’s eyes were on me. I was embarrassed to stand off in a corner by myself, but I couldn’t think of anything to say to anybody. It was humiliating. I felt so clumsy, I couldn’t wait to get out.”


Social phobia, also called social anxiety disorder, is diagnosed when people become overwhelmingly anxious and excessively self-conscious in everyday social situations. People with social phobia have an intense, persistent, and chronic fear of being watched and judged by others and of doing things that will embarrass them. They can worry for days or weeks before a dreaded situation. This fear may become so severe that it interferes with work, school, and other ordinary activities, and can make it hard to make and keep friends.

While many people with social phobia realize that their fears about being with people are excessive or unreasonable, they are unable to overcome them. Even if they manage to confront their fears and be around others, they are usually very anxious beforehand, are intensely uncomfortable throughout the encounter, and worry about how they were judged for hours afterward.

Social phobia can be limited to one situation (such as talking to people, eating or drinking, or writing on a blackboard in front of others) or may be so broad (such as in generalized social phobia) that the person experiences anxiety around almost anyone other than the family.

Physical symptoms that often accompany social phobia include blushing, profuse sweating, trembling, nausea, and difficulty talking. When these symptoms occur, people with social phobia feel as though all eyes are focused on them.

Social phobia affects about 15 million American adults.1 Women and men are equally likely to develop the disorder,10 which usually begins in childhood or early adolescence.2 There is some evidence that genetic factors are involved.11 Social phobia is often accompanied by other anxiety disorders or depression,2,4and substance abuse may develop if people try to self-medicate their anxiety.

Social phobia can be successfully treated with certain kinds of psychotherapy or medications.

Specific Phobias

I’m scared to death of flying [on airplanes], and I never do it anymore. I used to start dreading a plane trip a month before I was due to leave. It was an awful feeling when that airplane door closed and I felt trapped. My heart would pound, and I would sweat bullets. When the airplane would start to ascend, it just reinforced the feeling that I couldn’t get out. When I think about flying, I picture myself losing control, freaking out, and climbing the walls, but of course I never did that. I’m not afraid of crashing or hitting turbulence. It’s just that feeling of being trapped. Whenever I’ve thought about changing jobs, I’ve had to think, "Would I be under pressure to fly?" These days I only go places where I can drive or take a train. My friends always point out that I couldn’t get off a train traveling at high speeds either, so why don’t trains bother me? I just tell them it isn’t a rational fear.
A specific phobia is an intense, irrational fear of something that poses little or no actual danger. Some of the more common specific phobias are centered around closed-in places, heights, escalators, tunnels, highway driving, water, flying, dogs, and injuries involving blood. Such phobias aren’t just extreme fear; they are irrational fear of a particular thing. You may be able to ski the world’s tallest mountains with ease but be unable to go above the 5th floor of an office building. While adults with phobias realize that these fears are irrational, they often find that facing, or even thinking about facing, the feared object or situation brings on a panic attack or severe anxiety.

Specific phobias affect an estimated 19.2 million adult Americans1 and are twice as common in women as men.10 They usually appear in childhood or adolescence and tend to persist into adulthood.12 The causes of specific phobias are not well understood, but there is some evidence that the tendency to develop them may run in families.

If the feared situation or feared object is easy to avoid, people with specific phobias may not seek help; but if avoidance interferes with their careers or their personal lives, it can become disabling and treatment is usually pursued.

Specific phobias respond very well to carefully targeted psychotherapy.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)

  • “I always thought I was just a worrier. I’d feel keyed up and unable to relax. At times it would come and go, and at times it would be constant. It could go on for days. I’d worry about what I was going to fix for a dinner party, or what would be a great present for somebody. I just couldn’t let something go.”
  • When my problems were at their worst, I’d miss work and feel just terrible about it. Then I worried that I’d lose my job. My life was miserable until I got treatment.
  • “I’d have terrible sleeping problems. There were times I’d wake up wired in the middle of the night. I had trouble concentrating, even reading the newspaper or a novel. Sometimes I’d feel a little lightheaded. My heart would race or pound. And that would make me worry more. I was always imagining things were worse than they really were. When I got a stomachache, I’d think it was an ulcer.”


People with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) go through the day filled with exaggerated worry and tension, even though there is little or nothing to provoke it. They anticipate disaster and are overly concerned about health issues, money, family problems, or difficulties at work. Sometimes just the thought of getting through the day produces anxiety.

GAD is diagnosed when a person worries excessively about a variety of everyday problems for at least 6 months. People with GAD can’t seem to get rid of their concerns, even though they usually realize that their anxiety is more intense than the situation warrants. They can’t relax, startle easily, and have difficulty concentrating. Often they have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep. Physical symptoms that often accompany the anxiety include fatigue, headaches, muscle tension, muscle aches, difficulty swallowing, trembling, twitching, irritability, sweating, nausea, lightheadedness, having to go to the bathroom frequently, feeling out of breath, and hot flashes.

When their anxiety level is mild, people with GAD can function socially and hold down a job. Although they don’t avoid certain situations as a result of their disorder, people with GAD can have difficulty carrying out the simplest daily activities if their anxiety is severe.

GAD affects about 6.8 million American adults,1 including twice as many women as men. The disorder develops gradually and can begin at any point in the life cycle, although the years of highest risk are between childhood and middle age.2 There is evidence that genes play a modest role in GAD.

Other anxiety disorders, depression, or substance abuse often accompany GAD, which rarely occurs alone. GAD is commonly treated with medication or cognitive-behavioral therapy, but co-occurring conditions must also be treated using the appropriate therapies.

Treatment of Anxiety Disorders

In general, anxiety disorders are treated with medication, specific types of psychotherapy, or both. Treatment choices depend on the problem and the person’s preference. Before treatment begins, a doctor must conduct a careful diagnostic evaluation to determine whether a person’s symptoms are caused by an anxiety disorder or a physical problem. If an anxiety disorder is diagnosed, the type of disorder or the combination of disorders that are present must be identified, as well as any coexisting conditions, such as depression or substance abuse. Sometimes alcoholism, depression, or other coexisting conditions have such a strong effect on the individual that treating the anxiety disorder must wait until the coexisting conditions are brought under control.

People with anxiety disorders who have already received treatment should tell their current doctor about that treatment in detail. If they received medication, they should tell their doctor what medication was used, what the dosage was at the beginning of treatment, whether the dosage was increased or decreased while they were under treatment, what side effects occurred, and whether the treatment helped them become less anxious. If they received psychotherapy, they should describe the type of therapy, how often they attended sessions, and whether the therapy was useful.

Often people believe that they have “failed” at treatment or that the treatment didn’t work for them when, in fact, it was not given for an adequate length of time or was administered incorrectly. Sometimes people must try several different treatments or combinations of treatment before they find the one that works for them.

Medication

Medication will not cure anxiety disorders, but it can keep them under control while the person receives psychotherapy. Medication must be prescribed by physicians, usually psychiatrists, who can either offer psychotherapy themselves or work as a team with psychologists, social workers, or counselors who provide psychotherapy. The principal medications used for anxiety disorders are antidepressants, anti-anxiety drugs, and beta-blockers to control some of the physical symptoms. With proper treatment, many people with anxiety disorders can lead normal, fulfilling lives.

Antidepressants

Antidepressants were developed to treat depression but are also effective for anxiety disorders. Although these medications begin to alter brain chemistry after the very first dose, their full effect requires a series of changes to occur; it is usually about 4 to 6 weeks before symptoms start to fade. It is important to continue taking these medications long enough to let them work.

SSRIs

Some of the newest antidepressants are called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs. SSRIs alter the levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain, which, like other neurotransmitters, helps brain cells communicate with one another.

Fluoxetine (Prozac®), sertraline (Zoloft®), escitalopram (Lexapro®), paroxetine (Paxil®), and citalopram (Celexa®) are some of the SSRIs commonly prescribed for panic disorder, OCD, PTSD, and social phobia. SSRIs are also used to treat panic disorder when it occurs in combination with OCD, social phobia, or depression. Venlafaxine (Effexor®), a drug closely related to the SSRIs, is used to treat GAD. These medications are started at low doses and gradually increased until they have a beneficial effect.

SSRIs have fewer side effects than older antidepressants, but they sometimes produce slight nausea or jitters when people first start to take them. These symptoms fade with time. Some people also experience sexual dysfunction with SSRIs, which may be helped by adjusting the dosage or switching to another SSRI.

Tricyclics

Tricyclics are older than SSRIs and work as well as SSRIs for anxiety disorders other than OCD. They are also started at low doses that are gradually increased. They sometimes cause dizziness, drowsiness, dry mouth, and weight gain, which can usually be corrected by changing the dosage or switching to another tricyclic medication.

Tricyclics include imipramine (Tofranil®), which is prescribed for panic disorder and GAD, and clomipramine (Anafranil®), which is the only tricyclic antidepressant useful for treating OCD.

MAOIs

Monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) are the oldest class of antidepressant medications. The MAOIs most commonly prescribed for anxiety disorders are phenelzine (Nardil®), followed by tranylcypromine (Parnate®), and isocarboxazid (Marplan®), which are useful in treating panic disorder and social phobia. People who take MAOIs cannot eat a variety of foods and beverages (including cheese and red wine) that contain tyramine or take certain medications, including some types of birth control pills, pain relievers (such as Advil®, Motrin®, or Tylenol®), cold and allergy medications, and herbal supplements; these substances can interact with MAOIs to cause dangerous increases in blood pressure. The development of a new MAOI skin patch may help lessen these risks. MAOIs can also react with SSRIs to produce a serious condition called “serotonin syndrome,” which can cause confusion, hallucinations, increased sweating, muscle stiffness, seizures, changes in blood pressure or heart rhythm, and other potentially life-threatening conditions.

Anti-Anxiety Drugs

High-potency benzodiazepines combat anxiety and have few side effects other than drowsiness. Because people can get used to them and may need higher and higher doses to get the same effect, benzodiazepines are generally prescribed for short periods of time, especially for people who have abused drugs or alcohol and who become dependent on medication easily. One exception to this rule is people with panic disorder, who can take benzodiazepines for up to a year without harm.

Clonazepam (Klonopin®) is used for social phobia and GAD, lorazepam (Ativan®) is helpful for panic disorder, and alprazolam (Xanax®) is useful for both panic disorder and GAD.

Some people experience withdrawal symptoms if they stop taking benzodiazepines abruptly instead of tapering off, and anxiety can return once the medication is stopped. These potential problems have led some physicians to shy away from using these drugs or to use them in inadequate doses.

Buspirone (Buspar®), an azapirone, is a newer anti-anxiety medication used to treat GAD. Possible side effects include dizziness, headaches, and nausea. Unlike benzodiazepines, buspirone must be taken consistently for at least 2 weeks to achieve an anti-anxiety effect.

Beta-Blockers

Beta-blockers, such as propranolol (Inderal®), which is used to treat heart conditions, can prevent the physical symptoms that accompany certain anxiety disorders, particularly social phobia. When a feared situation can be predicted (such as giving a speech), a doctor may prescribe a beta-blocker to keep physical symptoms of anxiety under control.

Taking Medications

Before taking medication for an anxiety disorder:

  • Ask your doctor to tell you about the effects and side effects of the drug.
  • Tell your doctor about any alternative therapies or over-the-counter medications you are using.
  • Ask your doctor when and how the medication should be stopped. Some drugs can’t be stopped abruptly but must be tapered off slowly under a doctor’s supervision.
  • Work with your doctor to determine which medication is right for you and what dosage is best.
  • Be aware that some medications are effective only if they are taken regularly and that symptoms may recur if the medication is stopped.


Psychotherapy

Psychotherapy involves talking with a trained mental health professional, such as a psychiatrist, psychologist, social worker, or counselor, to discover what caused an anxiety disorder and how to deal with its symptoms.

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is very useful in treating anxiety disorders. The cognitive part helps people change the thinking patterns that support their fears, and the behavioral part helps people change the way they react to anxiety-provoking situations.

For example, CBT can help people with panic disorder learn that their panic attacks are not really heart attacks and help people with social phobia learn how to overcome the belief that others are always watching and judging them. When people are ready to confront their fears, they are shown how to use exposure techniques to desensitize themselves to situations that trigger their anxieties.

People with OCD who fear dirt and germs are encouraged to get their hands dirty and wait increasing amounts of time before washing them. The therapist helps the person cope with the anxiety that waiting produces; after the exercise has been repeated a number of times, the anxiety diminishes. People with social phobia may be encouraged to spend time in feared social situations without giving in to the temptation to flee and to make small social blunders and observe how people respond to them. Since the response is usually far less harsh than the person fears, these anxieties are lessened. People with PTSD may be supported through recalling their traumatic event in a safe situation, which helps reduce the fear it produces. CBT therapists also teach deep breathing and other types of exercises to relieve anxiety and encourage relaxation.

Exposure-based behavioral therapy has been used for many years to treat specific phobias. The person gradually encounters the object or situation that is feared, perhaps at first only through pictures or tapes, then later face-to-face. Often the therapist will accompany the person to a feared situation to provide support and guidance.

CBT is undertaken when people decide they are ready for it and with their permission and cooperation. To be effective, the therapy must be directed at the person’s specific anxieties and must be tailored to his or her needs. There are no side effects other than the discomfort of temporarily increased anxiety.

CBT or behavioral therapy often lasts about 12 weeks. It may be conducted individually or with a group of people who have similar problems. Group therapy is particularly effective for social phobia. Often “homework” is assigned for participants to complete between sessions. There is some evidence that the benefits of CBT last longer than those of medication for people with panic disorder, and the same may be true for OCD, PTSD, and social phobia. If a disorder recurs at a later date, the same therapy can be used to treat it successfully a second time.

Medication can be combined with psychotherapy for specific anxiety disorders, and this is the best treatment approach for many people.

How to Get Help for Anxiety Disorders

If you think you have an anxiety disorder, the first person you should see is your family doctor. A physician can determine whether the symptoms that alarm you are due to an anxiety disorder, another medical condition, or both.

If an anxiety disorder is diagnosed, the next step is usually seeing a mental health professional. The practitioners who are most helpful with anxiety disorders are those who have training in cognitive-behavioral therapy and/or behavioral therapy, and who are open to using medication if it is needed.

You should feel comfortable talking with the mental health professional you choose. If you do not, you should seek help elsewhere. Once you find a mental health professional with whom you are comfortable, the two of you should work as a team and make a plan to treat your anxiety disorder together.

Remember that once you start on medication, it is important not to stop taking it abruptly. Certain drugs must be tapered off under the supervision of a doctor or bad reactions can occur. Make sure you talk to the doctor who prescribed your medication before you stop taking it. If you are having trouble with side effects, it’s possible that they can be eliminated by adjusting how much medication you take and when you take it.

Most insurance plans, including health maintenance organizations (HMOs), will cover treatment for anxiety disorders. Check with your insurance company and find out. If you don’t have insurance, the Health and Human Services division of your county government may offer mental health care at a public mental health center that charges people according to how much they are able to pay. If you are on public assistance, you may be able to get care through your state Medicaid plan.

Ways to Make Treatment More Effective

Many people with anxiety disorders benefit from joining a self-help or support group and sharing their problems and achievements with others. Internet chat rooms can also be useful in this regard, but any advice received over the Internet should be used with caution, as Internet acquaintances have usually never seen each other and false identities are common. Talking with a trusted friend or member of the clergy can also provide support, but it is not a substitute for care from a mental health professional.

Stress management techniques and meditation can help people with anxiety disorders calm themselves and may enhance the effects of therapy. There is preliminary evidence that aerobic exercise may have a calming effect. Since caffeine, certain illicit drugs, and even some over-the-counter cold medications can aggravate the symptoms of anxiety disorders, they should be avoided. Check with your physician or pharmacist before taking any additional medications.

The family is very important in the recovery of a person with an anxiety disorder. Ideally, the family should be supportive but not help perpetuate their loved one’s symptoms. Family members should not trivialize the disorder or demand improvement without treatment. If your family is doing either of these things, you may want to show them this booklet so they can become educated allies and help you succeed in therapy.

Depression

A diagnosis of mental illness is rarely simple and straightforward. There are no infallible physiological tests that determine whether a person has a mental illness. Diagnosis requires that qualified healthcare professionals identify several specific symptoms that the person exhibits. Each mental illness has characteristic signs and symptoms that are related to the underlying biological dysfunction.

Depression, or depressive disorders, is a leading cause of disability in the United States as well as worldwide. It affects an estimated 9.5 percent of American adults in a given year. Nearly twice as many women as men have depression. Epidemiological studies have reported that up to 2.5 percent of children and 8.3 percent of adolescents in the United States suffer from depression.

The symptoms of depression

Depression is more than just being in a bad mood or feeling sad. Everyone experiences these feelings on occasion, but that does not constitute depression. Depression is actually not a single disease; there are three main types of depressive disorders. They are major depressive disorder, dysthymia, and bipolar disorder (manic-depression).

While some of the symptoms of depression are common during a passing “blue mood,” major depressive disorder is diagnosed when a person has five or more of the symptoms nearly every day during a two-week period. Symptoms of depression include a sad mood, a loss of interest in activities that one used to enjoy, a change in appetite or weight, oversleeping or difficulty sleeping, physical slowing or agitation, energy loss, feelings of worthlessness or inappropriate guilt, difficulty concentrating, and recurrent thoughts of death or suicide.

When people have depression, their lives are affected severely: they have trouble performing at work or school, and they aren’t interested in normal family and social activities. In adults, an untreated major depressive episode lasts an average of nine months. At least half of the people who experience an episode of major depression will have another episode of depression at some point.

Dysthymia is less severe than major depressive disorder, but it is more chronic. In dysthymia, a depressed mood along with at least two other symptoms of depression persist for at least two years in adults, or one year in children or adolescents. These symptoms may not be as disabling, but they do keep affected people from functioning well or feeling good. Dysthymia often begins in childhood, adolescence, or early adulthood. On average, untreated dysthymia lasts four years in children and adolescents.

A third type of depressive disorder is bipolar disorder, also called manic-depression. A person who has bipolar disorder alternates between episodes of major depression and mania (periods of abnormally and persistently elevated mood or irritability). During manic periods, the person will also have three or more of the following symptoms: overly inflated self-esteem, decreased need for sleep, increased talkativeness, racing thoughts, distractibility, increased goal-directed activity or physical agitation, and excessive involvement in pleasurable activities that have a high potential for painful consequences.

While in a manic phase, adolescents may engage in risky or reckless behaviors such as fast driving and unsafe sex. Bipolar disorder frequently begins during adolescence or young adulthood. Adults with bipolar disorder often have clearly defined episodes of mania and depression, with periods of mania every two to four years. Children and adolescents with bipolar disorder, however, may cycle rapidly between depression and mania many times within a day. Bipolar disorder in youths may be difficult to distinguish from other mental illnesses because the symptoms often overlap with those of other mental illnesses such as ADHD, conduct disorder, or oppositional defiant disorder.

The causes of depression (depressive disorders)

Depression, like other mental illnesses, is probably caused by a combination of biological, environmental, and social factors, but the exact causes are not yet known. For years, scientists thought that low levels of certain neurotransmitters (such as serotonin, dopamine, or norepinephrine) in the brain caused depression. However, scientists now believe that the interplay of factors leading to depression is much more complex. Genetic causes have been suggested from family studies that have shown that between 20 and 50 percent of children and adolescents with depression have a family history of depression and that children of depressed parents are more than three times as likely as children with nondepressed parents to experience a depressive disorder. Abnormal endocrine function, specifically of the hypothalamus or pituitary, may play a role in causing depression. Other risk factors for depressive disorders in youths include stress, cigarette smoking, loss of a parent, the breakup of a romantic relationship, attention disorders, learning disorders, abuse, neglect, and other trauma including experiencing a natural disaster.

Treating depression

A variety of antidepressant medications and psychotherapies are used to treat depression. The most effective treatment for most people is a combination of medication and psychotherapy. Many of us are aware that medications are available to treat depressive disorders—we see the ads on television and in magazines. Up to 70 percent of people with depression can be treated effectively with medication.

Medications used to treat depressive disorders usually act on the neurotransmission pathway. For example, some medications affect the activity of certain neurotransmitters, such as serotonin or norepinephrine. Different depressive disorders require different medication therapies. For example, individuals who have bipolar disorder are often treated with a mood-stabilizing drug, such as lithium, during their manic phase and a combination of mood-stabilizer and antidepressant medications during their depressive phase.

Medications usually lead to relief from the symptoms of depression within six to eight weeks. If one drug doesn’t relieve symptoms, doctors can prescribe a different antidepressant drug. As with drugs to treat other mental illnesses, patients are monitored closely by their doctor for symptoms of depression and for side effects. Patients who continue to take their medication for at least six months after recovery from major depression are 70 percent less likely to experience a relapse. Psychotherapy helps patients learn more effective ways to deal with the problems in their lives. These therapies usually involve 6 to 20 weekly meetings. These treatment plans should be revised if there is no improvement of symptoms within three or four months.

The combination of medications and psychotherapy is effective in the majority of cases and represents the standard care; however, doctors can employ other methods. One therapy that is highly effective when antidepressants and psychotherapy are not effective is electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), or electroshock therapy. ECT is not commonly used in children and adolescents. When ECT is performed, the individual is anesthetized and receives an electrical shock in specific parts of the brain. The patient does not consciously experience the shock. ECT can provide dramatic and rapid relief, but the effects usually last a fairly short time. After ECT, individuals usually take antidepressant medications.

A few years ago, the herbal supplement St. John’s wort received great attention in the media as an over-the-counter treatment for mild to moderate depression. However, many of the claims did not have good scientific evidence to back them up. The effectiveness and safety of St. John’s wort remain uncertain, and its use is generally not recommended.

Coping with depression

People who have depression (or another depressive disorder) feel exhausted, worthless, helpless, and hopeless. These negative thoughts and feelings that are part of depression make some people feel like giving up. As treatment takes effect, these thoughts begin to go away.

Some strategies that can help a person waiting for treatment to take effect include setting realistic goals in light of the depression and assuming a reasonable amount of responsibility; breaking large tasks into small ones, setting some priorities, and doing what one can as one can; trying to be with other people and to confide in someone—it is usually better than being alone and secretive; participating in activities that may make one feel better; getting some mild exercise, going to a movie or a ball game, or participating in religious, social, or other activities; expecting one’s mood to improve gradually, not immediately (feeling better takes time); postponing important decisions until the depression has lifted and discussing big decisions with family or friends who have a more objective view of the situation; remembering that positive thinking will replace the negative thinking that is part of the depression as one’s depression responds to treatment; and letting one’s family and friends help.

Learning Activity

Watch this video Sherwin Nuland on electroshock therapy:



Surgeon and author Sherwin Nuland discusses the development of electroshock therapy as a cure for severe, life-threatening depression—including his own.

You can also watch this video on TED.com

Schizophrenia

Schizophrenia affects approximately 1 percent of the population, or 2.2 million U.S. adults. Men and women are equally affected. The illness usually emerges in young people in their teens or twenties. Although children over the age of five can develop schizophrenia, it is rare before adolescence. In children, the disease usually develops gradually and is often preceded by developmental delays in motor or speech development. Childhood-onset schizophrenia tends to be harder to treat and has a less favorable prognosis than does the adult-onset form. The symptoms of schizophrenia. There are many myths and misconceptions about schizophrenia.

Schizophrenia is not a multiple or split personality, nor are individuals who have this illness constantly incoherent or psychotic. Although the media often portray individuals with schizophrenia as violent, in reality, very few affected people are dangerous to others. In fact, individuals with schizophrenia are more likely to be victims of violence than violent themselves. Schizophrenia has severe symptoms. A diagnosis of schizophrenia requires that at least two of the symptoms below be present during a significant portion of a one-month period: delusions (false beliefs such as conspiracies, mind control, or persecution); hallucinations (usually voices criticizing or commenting on the person’s behavior); disorganized speech (incomprehensible or difficult to understand); grossly disorganized or catatonic behavior; and negative symptoms such as flat emotions, lack of facial expressions, and inattention to basic self-care needs such as bathing and eating.

However, the presence of either one of the first two symptoms is sufficient to diagnose schizophrenia if the delusions are especially bizarre or if the hallucinations consist of one or more voices that keep a running commentary on the person’s behavior or thoughts. The DSM-IV specifies additional criteria for a diagnosis of schizophrenia: occupational dysfunction, persistence of the disturbance for at least six months, exclusion of a mood disorder, exclusion of a substance-abuse or medical condition that causes similar symptoms, and consideration of a possible pervasive developmental disorder. The course of schizophrenia varies considerably from one individual to the next. Most people who have schizophrenia experience at least one, and usually more, relapses after their first psychotic episode. Relapses are periods of more intense symptoms of illness (hallucinations and delusions). During remissions, the negative symptoms related to emotion or personal care are usually still present. About 10 percent of patients remain severely ill for long periods of time and do not return to their previous state of mental functioning. Several long-term studies found that as many as one-third to one-half of people with schizophrenia improve significantly or even recover completely from their illness.

The causes of schizophrenia

Like the other mental illnesses discussed here, scientists are still working to determine what causes schizophrenia. Also like the other mental illnesses, genetic and environmental factors most likely interact to cause the disease. Several studies suggest that an imbalance of chemical neurotransmitter systems of the brain, including the dopamine, GABA, glutamate, and norepinephrine neurotransmitter systems, are involved in the development of schizophrenia. Family, twin, and adoption studies support the idea that genetics plays an important role in the illness. For example, children of people with schizophrenia are 13 times more likely, and identical twins are 48 times more likely, to develop the illness than are people in the general population. Scientists continue to look at genes that may play a role in causing schizophrenia. One gene of interest to scientists who study schizophrenia codes for an enzyme that breaks down dopamine in the synapse.

Treating schizophrenia

There is no cure for schizophrenia; however, effective treatments that make the illness manageable for most affected people are available. The optimal treatment includes antipsychotic medication combined with a variety of psychotherapeutic interventions. Since the 1950s, doctors have used antipsychotic drugs, such as chlorpromazine and haloperidol, to relieve the hallucinations and delusions typical of schizophrenia. Recently, newer (also called atypical) antipsychotic drugs such as risperidone and clozapine have proven to be more effective. Early and sustained treatment that includes antipsychotic medication is important for long-term improvement of the course of the disease. Patients who discontinue medication are likely to experience a relapse of their illness. People who manage schizophrenia best combine medication with psychosocial rehabilitation (life-skills training). Therapies that combine family and community support, education, and behavioral and cognitive skills to address specific challenges help schizophrenic patients improve their functioning and the quality of their lives.

Anxiety Disorders

  • Samantha is scared to death of flying. She never flies anymore, even though her children live more than 2000 miles away. She used to start dreading a plane trip a month before she was due to leave. She felt awful when the airplane door closed; she felt trapped. Her heart pounded, and she dripped with sweat.
  • In any social situation, Tamara felt fear. She would be anxious before she even left the house, and it escalated as she got closer to a college class, a party, or whatever. She felt sick in her stomach. It almost was like she had the flu. Her heart pounded, her palms would get sweaty, and she had this sense of being removed from herself and from everybody else.
  • Sue was raped when she was 25 years old. For a long time, she spoke about the rape as though it was something that happened to someone else. She was very aware that it had happened to her, but there was just no feeling. Then she started having flashbacks. They kind of came over her like a splash of water. She felt terrified. Suddenly, she was reliving the rape. Every instant was startling. She wasn't aware of anything around her. She was in a bubble, just kind of floating. The rape happened the week before Thanksgiving, and she feels fearful every year around the anniversary date.


Anxiety is a normal reaction to stress. It helps you deal with a tense situation in the office, study harder for an exam, or keep focused on an important speech. In general, it helps you cope. But when anxiety becomes an excessive, irrational dread of everyday things, it can be disabling. Anxiety disorders affect about 40 million American adults age 18 years and older (about 18 percent). It's not the same as the mild stress you may feel when you have to speak in public, or the butterflies you may feel in your stomach when going on a first date. Anxiety disorders can last at least six months and can get worse if they are not treated. The five major types of anxiety disorder are:

  • Generalized anxiety disorder
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • Panic disorder
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Social phobia (social anxiety disorder)


Generalized Anxiety Disorder

All of us worry about things like health, money, or family problems at one time or another. But people with GAD are extremely worried about these and many other things, even when there is little or no reason to worry about them. They may be very anxious about just getting through the day. They think things will always go badly. At times, worrying keeps people with GAD from doing everyday tasks.

People with GAD:

  • Worry very much about everyday things for at least six months, even if there is little or no reason to worry about them
  • Can't control their constant worries
  • Know that they worry much more than they should
  • Can't relax
  • Have a hard time concentrating
  • Are easily startled
  • Have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep


Common body symptoms are:

  • Feeling tired for no reason
  • Headaches
  • Muscle tension and aches
  • Having a hard time swallowing
  • Trembling or twitching
  • Being irritable
  • Sweating Nausea
  • Feeling lightheaded
  • Feeling out of breath
  • Having to go to the bathroom a lot
  • Hot flashes


GAD develops slowly. It often starts during the time between childhood and middle age. Symptoms may get better or worse at different times, and often are worse during times of stress. People with GAD may visit a doctor many times before they find out they have this disorder. They ask their doctors to help them with the signs of GAD, such as headaches or trouble falling asleep, but don't always get the help they need right away. It may take doctors some time to be sure that a person has GAD instead of something else.

Panic Disorder

People with panic disorder have sudden attacks of terror. These attacks include:

  • A pounding heart
  • Sweatiness
  • Weakness
  • Faintness
  • Dizziness Feeling overly warm or chilled
  • Tingling or numb hands
  • Nausea, chest pain, or smothering sensations


Panic attacks usually produce a sense of unreality, a fear of impending doom, or a fear of losing control. A fear of one's own unexplained physical symptoms is also a sign of panic disorder. People having panic attacks sometimes believe they are having heart attacks, losing their minds, or are dying. They can't predict when or where an attack will occur, and, between episodes, many worry a lot and fear the next attack. Panic attacks can occur at any time, even during sleep. An attack usually peaks within 10 minutes, but some symptoms may last much longer. People who have full-blown, repeated panic attacks can become very disabled by their condition and should seek treatment before they start to avoid places or situations where panic attacks have occurred. For example, if a panic attack happened in an elevator, someone with panic disorder may develop a fear of elevators that could affect the choice of a job or an apartment. This fear could also restrict where that person can seek medical attention or enjoy entertainment.

Post-traumatic stress disorder

PTSD starts after a scary ordeal that involved physical harm or the threat of physical harm. The person who develops PTSD may have been the one who was harmed, the harm may have happened to a loved one, or the person may have witnessed a harmful event that happened to loved ones or strangers. PTSD can cause many symptoms.

These symptoms can be grouped into three categories:

1. Re-experiencing symptoms: Flashbacks—reliving the trauma over and over, including physical symptoms like

  • A racing heart or sweating
  • Bad dreams
  • Frightening thoughts


Re-experiencing symptoms may cause problems in a person's everyday routine. They can start from the person's own thoughts and feelings. Words, objects, or situations that are reminders of the event can also trigger symptoms.

2. Avoidance symptoms:

  • Staying away from places, events, or objects that are reminders of the experience
  • Feeling emotionally numb
  • Feeling strong guilt, depression, or worry
  • Losing interest in things that were enjoyable in the past
  • Having trouble remembering the dangerous event


Things that remind a person of the traumatic event can trigger avoidance symptoms. These symptoms may cause a person to change his or her personal routine. For example, after a bad car accident, a person who usually drives may avoid driving or riding in a car.

3. Hyperarousal symptoms:

  • Being easily startled
  • Feeling tense or "on edge"
  • Having difficulty sleeping
  • Having angry outbursts


It's normal to have some of these symptoms after a dangerous event. Sometimes people have very serious symptoms that go away after a few weeks. This is called acute stress disorder, or ASD. When the symptoms last more than a few weeks and become an ongoing problem, they might be PTSD. Some people with PTSD don't show any symptoms for weeks or months.

Social Phobia

Social phobia, also called social anxiety disorder, is diagnosed when people become very anxious and self-conscious in everyday social situations. People with social phobia have a strong fear of being watched and judged by others. They embarrass easily. Social phobia can happen in one kind of situation, such as talking to people, eating or drinking, or writing on a blackboard in front of others. Or, it may be so broad that the person experiences anxiety around almost anyone other than family members. Physical symptoms include:

  • Blushing
  • Profuse sweating
  • Trembling
  • Nausea
  • Difficulty talking


When these symptoms occur, people with social phobia feel as though everyone is watching them. A specific phobia is an intense, irrational fear of something that poses little or no actual danger. Some of the more common specific phobias are fears of:

  • Closed-in places
  • Heights
  • Escalators
  • Tunnels
  • Highway driving
  • Water
  • Flying
  • Dogs Injuries involving blood


These fears are irrational. For example, you may be able to ski the world's tallest mountains with ease but be unable to go above the fifth floor of an office building. Adults with phobias know that these fears are irrational but they often find that facing, or even thinking about facing their fears brings on a panic attack or severe anxiety. Treatments Yes, there are treatments that can help people with anxiety disorders. There is no cure for anxiety disorder yet, but treatments can give relief to people who have it and help them live a more normal life. The first step is to go to a doctor or health clinic to talk about your symptoms. The doctor will do an exam to make sure that another physical problem isn't causing the symptoms. The doctor may make a referral to a mental health specialist.

Doctors may prescribe medication to help relieve anxiety disorders. It's important to know that some of these medicines may take a few weeks to start working. In most states only a medical doctor (a family doctor or psychiatrist) can prescribe medications. The kinds of medicines used to treat anxiety disorders are listed below. Some are used to treat other problems, such as depression, but also are helpful for anxiety disorders:

  • Antidepressants
  • Anti-anxiety medicines
  • Beta blockers


Medications

Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are a kind of antidepressant for treating depression and anxiety disorders. However, a number of research studies show that certain antidepressants, such as some of the SSRIs (see box at right) have been used relatively safely during breastfeeding. You should discuss with your doctor whether breastfeeding is an option or whether you should plan to feed your baby formula. Although breastfeeding has some advantages for your baby, most importantly, as a mother, you need to stay healthy so you can take care of your baby.

Before taking medication for an anxiety disorder:

  • Ask your doctor to tell you about the effects and side effects of the drug.
  • Tell your doctor about any alternative therapies or over-the-counter medications you are using.
  • Ask your doctor when and how the medication should be stopped.


Some drugs can't be stopped abruptly but must be tapered off slowly under a doctor's supervision. Work with your doctor to determine which medication is right for you and what dosage is best. Be aware that some medications are effective only if they are taken regularly and that symptoms may come back if the medication is stopped.

Personality Disorders

Personality disorders are long-term patterns of thoughts and behaviors that cause serious problems with relationships and work. People with personality disorders have difficulty dealing with everyday stresses and problems. They often have stormy relationships with other people. The exact cause of personality disorders is unknown. However, genes and childhood experiences may play a role. Symptoms vary widely depending on the specific type of personality disorder. Treatment usually includes talk therapy and sometimes medicine.

What is borderline personality disorder?

Borderline personality disorder is a serious mental illness marked by unstable moods, behavior, and relationships. In 1980, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders, Third Edition (DSM-III) listed borderline personality disorder as a diagnosable illness for the first time. Most psychiatrists and other mental health professionals use the DSM to diagnose mental illnesses. Because some people with severe borderline personality disorder have brief psychotic episodes, experts originally thought of this illness as atypical, or borderline, versions of other mental disorders. While mental health experts now generally agree that the name "borderline personality disorder" is misleading, a more accurate term does not exist yet. Most people who have borderline personality disorder suffer from:

  • Problems with regulating emotions and thoughts
  • Impulsive and reckless behavior
  • Unstable relationships with other people


People with this disorder also have high rates of co-occurring disorders, such as depression, anxiety disorders, substance abuse, and eating disorders, along with self-harm, suicidal behaviors, and completed suicides. According to data from a subsample of participants in a national survey on mental disorders, about 1.6 percent of adults in the United States have borderline personality disorder in a given year. Borderline personality disorder is often viewed as difficult to treat. However, recent research shows that borderline personality disorder can be treated effectively, and that many people with this illness improve over time.

What are the symptoms of borderline personality disorder?

According to the DSM, Fourth Edition, Text Revision (DSM-IV-TR), to be diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, a person must show an enduring pattern of behavior that includes at least five of the following symptoms:

  • Extreme reactions—including panic, depression, rage, or frantic actions—to abandonment, whether real or perceived
  • A pattern of intense and stormy relationships with family, friends, and loved ones, often veering from extreme closeness and love (idealization) to extreme dislike or anger (devaluation)
  • Distorted and unstable self-image or sense of self, which can result in sudden changes in feelings, opinions, values, or plans and goals for the future (such as school or career choices)
  • Impulsive and often dangerous behaviors, such as spending sprees, unsafe sex, substance abuse, reckless driving, and binge eating.
  • Recurring suicidal behaviors or threats or self-harming behavior, such as cutting Intense and highly changeable moods, with each episode lasting from a few hours to a few days
  • Chronic feelings of emptiness and/or boredom Inappropriate, intense anger or problems controlling anger
  • Having stress-related paranoid thoughts or severe dissociative symptoms, such as feeling cut off from oneself, observing oneself from outside the body, or losing touch with reality.


Seemingly mundane events may trigger symptoms. For example, people with borderline personality disorder may feel angry and distressed over minor separations—such as vacations, business trips, or sudden changes of plans—from people to whom they feel close. Studies show that people with this disorder may see anger in an emotionally neutral face and have a stronger reaction to words with negative meanings than people who do not have the disorder.





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