For those with little experience with mental disorders, it can be difficult to tell them apart. Sometimes it can even be hard for medical professionals to make a diagnosis. This may not be such a surprise, when you consider that three of the major mental illnesses affecting Americans today -- depression, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder -- have overlapping symptoms. Research has shown, in fact, that the disorders are linked to genetics, and it may be that these disorders share some genetic risk factors. Science in this area is relatively new, and it may be some time before we completely understand the interactions of genes and how they relate to these mental disorders.
To make things more confusing, psychiatric diagnoses are made based on a list of symptoms that describe a "perfect" type. However, that doesn't mean that each patient will fit perfectly into that type.
That said, there are certain characteristics that tend to define each illness. Here is a list of some of the differences, as well as some tips for caring for someone who has been diagnosed with one of these disorders.
Symptoms of Depression
Depression is not just "feeling down," a normal emotion we all naturally experience from time to time. Clinical depression is characterized by intense feelings of sadness with chronic feelings of fatigue, decreased energy, loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities, insomnia or excessive sleeping, persistent aches or pains, and feelings of anxiety and worthlessness, among other symptoms.
There is more than one type of depression. Major depression and chronic depression are the most common types. Major depression is characterized by a combination of symptoms that make it hard for a person to work, sleep, eat, and enjoy things once found pleasurable. Chronic depression, also known as dysthymia, is milder and typically less disabling.
Caring for Someone With Depression
If you think a loved one might be suffering from depression, broaching the topic can be difficult. Begin by asking them how they're doing. Eventually, encourage them to see a medical professional who can provide treatment, and offer to help with daily tasks like driving to appointments. Encouraging your loved one to stay active physically and socially can help break cycles of oversleeping and improve mood.
Symptoms of Bipolar Disorder
Also known as manic depression, bipolar disorder is mainly characterized by periods of extreme highs and overactivity coupled with periods of depression. Like clinical depression, bipolar disorder is a mood disorder. It is relatively common, affecting 5.7 million Americans. Periods of mania or depression can last weeks or months. During a manic episode, patients will have high energy and a sometimes-irrational belief in their ability to accomplish many different tasks at once. After periods like this, manic patients will often crash into a depressive mood. These moods share many of the symptoms of clinical depression, such as feelings of deep sadness and lethargy.
Caregiving and Bipolar Disorder
As with patients with depression, when a loved one with bipolar disorder is in a downswing, even everyday tasks can feel overwhelming. Ask them how you can help. Help them stay active and encourage them to stick to their treatment. It can be helpful to track symptoms and reactions to medications in a notebook. That way you can look for signs that a mood swing is about to occur.
Symptoms of Schizophrenia
Of the three disorders mentioned in this article, schizophrenia is the least common. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 2.4 million Americans are schizophrenic. That's about 1.1 percent of the population. Schizophrenia and bipolar disorder also share some characteristics. Schizophrenics exhibit depressive tendencies, though they do not typically have the manic upswings that characterize bipolar disorder. The defining characteristic of schizophrenia is the presence of hallucinations. Though the manic periods experienced by bipolar patients may also include hallucination, this is rare. Also, bipolar patients tend to be more expressive when describing their hallucinations than schizophrenic patients.
Caring for Someone With Schizophrenia
As with other mental disorders, when caring for someone with schizophrenia it's important to offer your support and encourage treatment. Early intervention can make a big difference in the lives of schizophrenia patients, so seek care from a physician right away.
Offer to help with everyday activities, but remember that encouraging self-care can inspire self-confidence and independence.
Help your loved one monitor his or her medication and stay on track with treatment. This may mean keeping a medication calendar or setting timers to make sure your loved one is taking medication regularly. Using a diary to note progress and symptoms can help you, your loved one, and your loved one's doctors track the person's responses to medication.
No matter what the mental illness, it is important that your loved one's experience is a collaborative one. Give him or her a voice in the treatment. If your loved one feels listened to, he or she will be more motivated to follow through with treatment.