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It’s OK not to be OK: Mental Illness Can Affect Anyone

Edgar N. Arbaje, Psy.D., Licensed Psychologist

Introduction: Who is Affected by Mental Illness?

Mental illness can affect all people from all walks of life. It can affect you, me, your neighbor, friends, and relatives. It is estimated that mental illness affects approximate one-fifth of the population at any one time. However, that ratio rises to nearly one-half for some age groups over their lifetime. Depending on the study, the 30-44 age group is usually the one most affected by mental illness. This makes sense because this age group is sandwiched between early adulthood and late adulthood. Adulting is especially difficult when you are managing work responsibilities, mortgages, children about to become teenagers, and aging parents with health problems.

The most common disorders commonly-observed at any one time are what we refer to as affective disorders. In this category, we observe conditions such as depression, generalized anxiety, and phobias and panic. A significant portion of the population exhibits a misuse of alcohol or abuse of illegal drugs. Between 3 to 5% of the population experience what we refer to as “Serious Mental Illness”, which are disorders that are chronic and severe, and significantly limit one’s functioning. In this category we see schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and severe substance addiction, among others.

Recognizing Mental Illness

The way mental illness is diagnosed is through signs and symptoms. These symptoms may be verbalized by the client (e.g., “I’ve been depressed for the past month”) or observed by others (e.g., repeatedly returning to the house to check if the stove is on). These signs and symptoms can be grouped into four categories: Physiological Symptoms; Alterations in Mood; Behavior Dysregulation; and Interpersonal Dysfunction.

Perhaps the most common symptom to all mental disorders is disturbed sleep. We all experience problems of sleep from time to time. Perhaps you stayed up late watching the latest MMA event. Or maybe you have a big test tomorrow and you dreaming about it. Or perhaps it is you have a newborn and you have to wake up every few hours to feed the baby. But these are usually transient and sleep usually goes back to normal with time. However, chronically disturbed sleep is very strongly associated with mood disorders and fatigue. Sometimes, disturbed sleep is accompanied by alterations in appetite. Either you are eating too much, or hardly eating at all. Fatigue is commonly-experienced by those who do not sleep well or whose diet is dysfunctional. Other physiological symptoms include headaches, aches and pains, and problems with concentration are also common.

Alterations in mood usually manifest as greater-than-usual sadness, anxiety, fear/panic, or anger. Evolutionary psychology tells us that emotions are fleeting (and they have to be) because they are related to our survival. In other words, negative emotions help us survive and escape dangers. But when they persist, or occur in excess to the situation, it is a sign that we may have a mental disorder.

Behavior dysregulation can be manifested in one of two ways. Impulsive/risky behavior is the result of acting without thinking. Being impulsive may lead us to get into situations that can hurt us in the near future. The other side of that coin is compulsivity. This refers to engaging in repetitive behavior that one cannot control. Examples of this include washing your hands excessively (like 200 times in one day), panicking whenever books or shoes are not arranged in a particular configuration, or hoarding boxes or garbage because you are afraid of throwing things away. If having high impulsivity drives individuals to experiment with drugs, having a high compulsivity keeps them addicted to these drugs.

Sometimes, individuals with mental illness do not recognize their own problems. It is those around them who do. One way that mental illness manifests is through interpersonal dysfunction. People who were once social butterflies and “the life of the party” become withdrawn and isolated. They stop enjoying activates they once found pleasurable. In other cases, a person who was once mild-mannered and agreeable turns antagonistic and engages in aggressive behavior. Sudden changes to ones’ usual interpersonal style provide clues to mental illness. For example, if a person who was warm and loving suddenly becomes cold and distant. Or a person who used to be fiercely independent and autonomous is now excessively clingy and dependent on reassurance.

Divorce and Mental Health

It is undeniable that divorce and mental illness are associated. It is a stressor that causes significant societal, financial, and emotional burden, and is sometimes cited as one of the worst experiences in people’s lives. Sometimes, it is divorce itself which leads to the development of disorders. However, sometimes mental illness is what ultimately causes divorce.

Divorce tends to affect individuals differently depending on their age group. In adults, divorce usually leads to the developmental of clinical depression and anxiety. It is particularly impactful to those who have a history of childhood trauma or panic disorder. Research suggests that divorce affects children somewhat differently than adults. It tends to have an immediate impact on boys: they exhibit rebelliousness, acting-out behavior, and problems in school. Girls, on the other hand, seem to have a delayed reaction to divorce. But when it finally affects them, they exhibit mood symptoms and withdrawal.

Reach Out When You Need Help

Feeling overwhelmed on occasion is a natural part of life. Much of the time, depression and anxiety are specific to certain circumstances and are transient. However, there are times when we have far more on our plate than we can handle. The body can only tolerate so much stress before it begins to malfunction. When you start to feel overwhelmed with stressors, it is to your benefit to reach out and receive help. Though the saying, “A good laugh is the best medicine” may be true, having a good laugh with family or friends may not be sufficient to get you back to your usual functioning. At times, mental health treatment is absolutely necessary.

Mental health treatment comes in several forms. But the most common are psychotherapy and psychiatric medication. Therapy may be administered individually, in groups, with several members of a family, or with couples. Hundreds of psychiatric medications are already in use, with many more entering the market each year. For many conditions, either therapy or medication alone can sufficiently treat symptoms and get clients back on track. Sometimes, a combination of these is necessary to treat a disorder. Finding a mental health clinician may be as easy as calling your insurance company and requesting information for clinicians in your network. One can also search for clinicians within the community with databases such as or (I have no affiliation to either of these companies!).

It is my experience that no matter how complex the problem, or how many disorders one presents with, everyone can be helped. Some problems can be treated within a few short months, while others require years to treat. Regardless of the situation, everyone can be helped to get back to normality.

It’s Ok to not be Ok. Usually, it is only temporary. Brighter days are ahead.