Types of Mental Illness - Understanding mental and emotional disorders

As recently as 200 years ago it was believed that the emotionally ill were evil, possessed by the devil. Their illness was punished rather than treated. The strange and sometimes bizarre actions of the mentally ill were feared and misunderstood.

Beginning in the late 1800's, Sigmund Freud made significant steps toward understanding mental functions. Since then, a number of physicians, psychologists, and scholars have made major contributions to the area of mental health.

Today, mental disorders are viewed and evaluated in the same way as physical diseases. Many are treatable using techniques similar to those used for physical diseases.

Mental Retardation

According to the American Association on Mental Retardation (AAMR) and the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th edition (DSM-FV), the diagnosis of mental retardation is appropriate when intellectual functioning is significantly below average, adaptive skills are limited, and the onset of the retardation occurs before the age of 18.

The term “mental retardation,” while still valid diagnostically, is no longer the favored term in common usage. Instead the term “developmental disability” is widely used to refer to both mental retardation and to any other condition that results from a congenital abnormality, trauma, disease or deprivation that interrupts or delays normal development.

The most common identifiable form of mental retardation is Down Syndrome. Physical characteristics include slanting eyes, slightly protruding lips and tongue, small hands and feet, and a short trunk. Compared to the general population, individuals with Down Syndrome are more likely to have congenital cardiac abnormalities, digestive tract problems, and cervical vertebrae problems. They are also more likely to develop upper respiratory infections, leukemia, or Alzheimer's Disease.

Other causes of mental retardation include hydrocephalus, an accumulation of fluid within the skull that destroys brain tissue; fragile X syndrome, a chromosomal abnormality resulting in moderate to severe retardation; phenylketonuria (PKU), the inability of a child's body to metabolize a certain kind of protein substance; Tay Sachs disease, an inherited disease that causes the progressive destruction of the central nervous system. Individuals with Tay Sachs disease appear to develop normally until about six months of age, when progressive deterioration of the infant's mental and motor skills begins. Most children who have the disease die from it before they are five years of age. Mental retardation from PKU can be prevented if the metabolic deficiency is detected within a few days after birth and treated with a special diet.

If a mother becomes infected with Rubella (German Measles) during her pregnancy, there is a chance her infant will be born with disabilities, including mental retardation. If a woman consumes alcohol during her pregnancy, there is a chance that her child will be born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS). Characteristics of FAS include mental and growth retardation, poor motor coordination, learning disabilities, and hyperactivity.

Early Intervention

An early intervention program is a very important part of the developmentally disabled child's life. It is an organized program of services necessary to prevent and/or minimize the effects of disability on young children with special needs. Programs are offered for children up to the age of 5 and may include speech, occupational and physical therapy, and medical care. Sometimes, early intervention programming is all that a child needs, and thereafter they enter regular schooling with little or no need for further intervention.

Effects on the Family

When a member of a family is diagnosed with a developmental disability, the entire family is affected. Depending upon the extent of the disability, the family members usually must rearrange their lives based upon the needs of the developmentally disabled child. Families must choose between trying to care for the child at home, or finding suitable placement in the community. They must arrange for any medical care and therapy their child might need. They must also manage the financial obligations that result from their child's needs, which can be considerable.

There are many organizations devoted to providing services and support to individuals with developmental disabilities and their families. The ARC of the United States has many state and local chapters, and can provide families with information regarding the services available in their community. To find the ARC chapter nearest to you, contact the national ARC office.

The ARC of the United States 500 East Border Street, Suite 300 Arlington, TX 76010 800433-5255

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