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Mental Health Awareness: Spot the Signs and Symptoms of Psychiatric Disorders

Written by Dr. Farhan Shahzad and Sarah Davies-Robertson

“Mental health is not the absence of disorder. It is a state in which a person is able to fulfil an active functioning role in society, interacting with others and overcoming difficulties without suffering major distress or disturbed behaviour.”

Mental ill health is a term used to describe a range of mental health problems, from mild symptoms to serious and enduring mental illness (SEMI).

The prevalence rates of mental ill health are quite high- 1 in 4 will suffer from a mild to moderate mental illness such as anxiety or depression within their lifetime. This is 25% of the general population, according to the World Health Organisation. Modern stress in the western world is responsible for the rise in common mental illnesses. Comorbid, or mixed, anxiety and depression is the most common. The modern world can promote stress and burnout if a person does not manage their wellbeing or develops unhealthy coping skills.

The rise of ill health is not just an individual matter- it costs the economy 80 million working days; unproductive days due to presenteeism, and organisations due to sickness absence rates and under performance. The rise is also linked to increased rates of suicide- a risk that is higher in men than in women.

While mental illness is on the rise due to modern stress and lifestyles, it has been attributed to both social and psychological causation; including genetic, environmental and lifestyle.

Psychiatric Disorders

Psychiatric disorders are on the rise. Stress is a major contributor, and stress at work can leave people feeling anxious and depressed. However, while work may cause a psychiatric illness, a person that already has a psychiatric disorder may find it harder to cope at work. The following offers a brief overview of some of the major psychiatric problems that adult workers may face.


An anxiety disorder is a debilitating disorder that makes individuals feel worry and fear. Its effects are both psychological and physical and it can manifest in a range of physiological reactions, such as rapid heartbeat and breathing, shaking and trembling, sweating, and general tenseness and nervousness.

We all feel anxious from time to time. Life’s stressors can cause us to worry and fear. However, someone with an anxiety disorder will feel the anxiety on a constant basis. Anxiety, for someone with an anxiety disorder, is frequent and persistent. A person with Generalised Anxiety Disorder, known as GAD, will suffer from anxiety on a continuous basis with no real reason to feel anxious.

The three components of anxiety are:

·Physical: panic attacks, sweating, racing heart and increased breathing, chest tightening, restlessness, feeling tense and edgy.

·Psychological: fear, worry, catastrophising, obsessive thinking.

·Behavioural: avoiding situations that make you feel anxious


A phobia is an intense fear of a particular object or situation. People can have a phobia of anything, but the most common are enclosed spaces, spiders, dogs, and social events.

While fearing a naturally frightening object is a natural response, a phobia is an irrational reaction to a potentially harmless stimulus. A person suffering from a phobia will feel fear or terror that is way out of proportion to the actual threat. For instance, taking a flight, or a little dog.

Some people have panic attacks at the sight of their phobia. They become nauseous, experience dizziness, chest pain, sweating, pounding heart and tremors. You may have a specific phobia if you:

·Have an unreasonable fear of a specific situation, event, or object that is out of proportion to the actual threat.

·You use avoidance so that you do not have to face the object, situation, or event.

·The phobia interferes with daily functioning.

Other phobias, such as fear of situations involving people or speaking in public are related to social anxiety and are known as social phobia.

Panic attack

A panic attack is an overwhelming feeling of anxiety that an individual feels. It is an extremely debilitating condition and the individual usually feels like they are dying, having a heart attack, or losing control.

Panic attacks are debilitating, not least because individuals who suffer from them worry about them too.

During a panic attack, an individual will feel a sudden overwhelming physical reaction. Heart rate and breathing will increase, the individual will begin to feel faint, dizzy, and suffer from uncontrollable shaking or tremors. They usually last a short amount of time, peaking at ten minutes, and lasting up to 3 minutes. Afterwards, the individual will feel exhausted from the experience. A person can experience a few panic attacks a day or may experience one or two a year.

They are common, effecting up to 40% of the population, and include the following symptoms:

·Overwhelming fear and panic

·Feeling like you are dying or choking

·Increased heart rate and breathing

·Loss of control

·Excessive sweating

·Feeling faint and dizzy

·Shaking or tremors

·Feeling like you are having a heart attack or dying

·Feeling hot and cold


Agoraphobia is an anxiety disorder where a person is afraid to leave their safe environment, notably their home. Agoraphobia is translated to a fear of the marketplace, and basically translates to a fear of people or public.

A person with agoraphobia is scared to go out in public for fear of embarrassing themselves and are exhibiting signs of anxiety. The following signs are symptoms of agoraphobia:

· Anxiety when the individual is away from their safe environment

·Significant increase in anxiety and panic when away from the safe environment

·Low self-esteem and a lack of confidence


Agoraphobia usually develops in response to a stressful event; i.e. the end of a relationship or a losing a job. The avoidance behaviour is a symptom of feeling distressed. The stressful event may trigger a panic attack and, in this sense, the individual my fear the panic attack again, confining themselves to their home.

Untreated agoraphobia may severely impair a person’s quality of life. It may affect relationships, work, and school. It also increases the risk of depression.

Social Phobia

While it is normal to feel nervous from time to time in unknown social situations, people with social phobia or social anxiety disorder, fear being criticised, humiliated, or laughed at in public, and as such, avoid social situations.

Social phobia may occur in the lead up to performance situations such as giving a speech, or situations involving social interactions.

The debilitating condition effects people’s quality of life and they avoid social settings as a result. The following are symptoms of social phobia:

· Excessive perspiration

· Trembling and shaking

· Blushing or stuttering

· Nausea

The physical symptoms can also be a source of anxiety as people may worry that others will notice these, although it is often said they are barely noticeable to people around them. Because of this, individuals with social phobia may withdraw and avoid people and situations that make them anxious and nervous.


While we all feel sad and low from time to time, some people experience these feelings chronically, over weeks or months. Depression can arise after a traumatic event, as a response to ongoing stressors, but sometimes there are no casual factors.

Depression effects your ability to feel pleasure in usual activities. Individuals may feel down for an extended period of time (two weeks or more) and this impacts on their daily functioning. The following symptoms may be indicative of a depressive disorder:


· Withdrawing from social life and friends

· Inability to function at work or school

· Relying on alcohol and sedatives

· Inability to concentrate


· Overwhelmed

· Guilty

· Irritable

· Frustrated

· Low self-esteem

· Worthlessness

· Hopelessness

· Sadness

· Indecisive


·Feeling like a failure

·Feeling of blame

· Worthlessness

· Life is not worth living

· Thoughts of death and suicide


· Tired all of the time

· Sick and run down

· Muscle pains and headaches

· Sleep problems (too much or too little)

· Appetite changes

· Weight changes (loss or gain)

While mental illnesses are on the rise, spotting the signs and symptoms early means a better prognosis and likelihood of a swifter recovery. If you, or anyone you know, is experiencing a psychological or psychiatric problem, help is available. Speak to your GP or in-house HR professional for advice.


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