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Frequently Asked Questions: Mental Illnesses

If you are with a student in an emergency situation, call campus police at 919-962-8100 or dial 911. If you are unsure whether the situation requires immediate, rapid intervention, call Counseling and Psychological Serivices at 919-966-3658 and ask to speak with the staff member on call.


Any member of the UNC community seeking consultation about when to intervene on behalf of a student, how to respond to a student in distress, and where to refer students in need of care should contact CAPS at 919-966-3658 or the Office of the Dean of Students at 919- 966-4042.

What is mental illness?


Mental illnesses are health conditions that disrupt:

  • a person’s thinking
  • feeling
  • mood
  • ability to relate to others
  • daily functioning

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the most common of these are:

  • anxiety disorders
  • depressive disorders
  • eating disorders
  • schizophrenia

Common symptoms include:

  • changes in mood
  • change in personality
  • change in personal habits
  • social withdrawal

According to  Mental Health America, some warning signs are:

  • substance abuse
  • delusions
  • hallucinations
  • changes in sleeping or eating habits

For children, the Mayo Clinic and the REACH Institute recently released a list of warning signs that include:

  • Feeling very sad or withdrawn for more than 2 weeks
  • Seriously trying to harm or kill yourself, or making plans to do so
  • Intense worries or fears that get in the way of your daily activities
What causes mental illnesses?

It is unknown exactly what causes a mental illness. According to the Mayo Clinic, four factors come into play:

  • inherited traits- can cause a person to be vulnerable to developing a mental illness, given certain experiences

  • biological factors- severe brain injuries or exposure to viruses, among others

  • life experiences- challenging situations such as loss of a loved one or difficult upbringing

  • brain chemistry- changes in neurotransmitters


How common are they?

In 2001, the World Health Organization, estimated that 450 million people suffer from a mental disorder. In the United States alone, the National Institute of Mental Health reports that one in four adults—approximately 57.7 million Americans—experience a mental health disorder in a given year.

In North Carolina, out of approximately 9.2 million residents, close to 335,000 adults live with serious mental illness and about 99,000 children live with serious mental health conditions, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.


How are they treated?

The National Council for State Legislators reports that of the 12-13 million adults with a serious mental illness in the U.S., 5.9 million—45.3 percent—received treatment in 2005, according to research from Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

  • 39 percent obtained prescription medication
  • 28.5 percent received outpatient treatment
  • 4.6 percent were treated as inpatients

According to a 2007 report by the National Council for State Legislators, psychosocial therapy is also common.

As for mental health providers, the National Alliance on Mental Illness lists psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, psychiatric/mental health nurses and licensed professional counselors as the primary mental health professionals.

  • Psychiatrists have a medical degree and concentrate on psychotherapy and prescribe medications.
  • Psychologists have a master’s or doctoral degree and concentrate on testing and psychotherapy. According to the Bureau Labor of Statistics, New Mexico and Louisiana allow psychologists limited ability to prescribe medications.
  • Social Workers have a bachelor’s, a master’s or a doctoral degree and concentrate on case management, psychotherapy and assessment.
  • Psychiatric/Mental Health Nurses have certifications ranging from an associate’s to a doctoral degree and concentrate on medical services including case management and psychotherapy. In some states, they can prescribe medications.
  • Licensed Counselors have a master’s degree and typically some post-graduate experience and concentrate on counseling services such as family therapy.

Mental illnesses cannot be cured. However, between 70 and 90 percent of individuals have significant reduction of symptoms and improved quality of life with a combination of pharmacological and psycho social treatments and supports, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.


Where can I find help?

The Department of Health and Human Services is in charge of the delivery of mental health services in North Carolina. 

To find services and programs in Orange County:

  • Mental Health Association in Orange County’s provider directory has information on mental health professionals

  • Mental Health America of the Triangle’s downloadable directory of services in Orange, Chatham and Person counties has a list of services updated in 2011

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