What is Serious Mental Illness?

Serious mental illness is a term that mental health pros use to describe the most severe mental health conditions. Although there are several in the category, the most common ones are bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. There’s no way to sugar coat this: serious mental illness is a big deal and it can be scary to think that you or someone you know may have it. At best, it’s an illness that must be carefully managed like any other major illness (think diabetes) but at worst, when untreated, it can basically wreck your life.

People with serious mental illness typically experience their first symptoms by the time they are 24. To complicate matters, many of the signs of serious mental illness mimic the typical issues – think major mood swings or substance abuse – that young adults already have to deal with. Serious mental illness can be tricky to diagnosis because many of the symptoms overlap with one another. Unlike physical illnesses, people with a serious mental illness may not be able to recognize that are struggling.

The good news is that the sooner someone gets treatment for their mental illness, the better their chances are for recovery. And yes, once the illness is in check, it is possible to live an amazing life with a serious mental illness. Seriously.

Is it normal?

While less common than depression and anxiety, 1 in 17 of Americans have a serious mental illness such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Unlike most physical illnesses, when someone has an untreated serious mental illness it can impact their friends, family, and even the community. People with a serious mental illness are more likely to attempt suicide so getting help can be life-saving.

What are the signs?

If you or someone you know is experiencing these signs for several months, it’s time to get help.

  • Feeling sad or down
  • Confused thinking or reduced ability to concentrate
  • Excessive fears or worries, or extreme feelings of guilt
  • Extreme mood changes of highs and lows
  • Withdrawal from friends and activities
  • Significant tiredness, low energy or problems sleeping
  • Detachment from reality (delusions), paranoia or hallucinations
  • Inability to cope with daily problems or stress
  • Trouble understanding and relating to situations and to people
  • Alcohol or drug abuse
  • Major changes in eating habits
  • Sex drive changes
  • Excessive anger, hostility or violence
  • Suicidal thinking

How can I get help?

Anytime you or someone you know is in crisis you can call or chat with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. But, if you think that someone is a danger to themselves of someone else, call 911.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness runs the NAMI Helpline for people who want to learn more abut mental illness. Call 1-800-950-6264.

Medication is an important part of recovery for people with schizophrenia or bi-polar disorder, so it’s a good idea to find a psychiatrist who can prescribe medication and may have hospital admission privileges. HelpPRO and Psychology Today can help you with your search.

If you want to get connected to mental health treatment center in your area, use the Substance Abuse Treatment Facility Locator or call 1-800-662-4357.



  • April M Metcalfe

    I am mentally disabled and have been and I keep asking for someone to help me with what all is going on in my life right now and I can seem to ever find any real help .so please if you can help me like you are saying to people that Even being mentally disabled that they have a good chance of getting better please give me a call at( 513)2541983

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    • You Matter

      Thank you for your question. The You Matter blog is designed to give youth and young adults a dedicated space to talk about mental health and issues related to their age group and stage of life. Please know that the Lifeline is available for individuals of all ages, any time, day or night, at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Your life matters!

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  • April M Metcalfe

    Do you have a place where I can see a psychiatrist? Mine has quit on me and I have been trying to find one and I am having so much trouble and I have no help!!! Can you please help me?

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  • ASHLEY Posey

    I am someone who has been struggling quite a bit recently. I have been diagnosed with combined type ADHD and anxiety in the past. However, I have found myself in three major manic episodes. I’m not entirely sure if that correlates with ADHD, however. My father has also been diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder. I have felt like I have exhausted my resources, as far as my primary care physician goes. I guess my question is: is it okay to get help without the assistance of your primary care? As a woman in college, it is difficult to get heard about mental illness without it being brushed off as general depression and hormonal issues.
    Thank you for your time! Much love.

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  • basketball stars

    Before when I met my ex, I was also in this situation, like psychological violence. I like this topic, it’s comforts me.

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  • sketchfab

    My neighbor is a bipolar disorder person. It is hard for her but it is a little bit hard for her relatives. Also for me it is hard because we have a communication with face to face. She refuse to go to the psychiatry doctor.

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  • sketchfab

    I have a neighbor who has bipolar disorder. It is hard for her but also hard for us. Because we have communication with face to face. Sometimes we get angry to her because of her sick.

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  • Jeremy

    Evang Paulinus Paul 17-year-old Nigerian who has a mental illness he goes around scamming people harassing them and threatening them his mental illness is affecting his brain he doesn’t realize what he is doing is wrong.

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