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What is a Serious Mental Illness (SMI)?    

Serious mental illness definition

The National Institute on Mental Health estimates that more than one in five U.S. adults live with a mental illness, amounting to 57.8 million people in 2021. Within these startling statistics lies an essential distinction between “any mental illness” (AMI) and “serious mental illness” (SMI). 

This difference in categorization causes many people to wonder: What is a serious mental illness, exactly?  

Serious Mental Illness (SMI) Definition 

The term “serious mental illness” (SMI) is a diagnosis within the broader AMI category, referring to people who experience mental, behavioral, or emotional disorders that cause significant functional impairment and limit or interfere with one or more essential life activities.  

How SMI Differs from AMI 

Serious mental illness (SMI) is a smaller and more severe subset of any mental illness (AMI). Like the aphorism, “a square is always a rectangle, but a rectangle isn’t always a square,” statistics regarding AMI include those that refer to SMI, but not vice-versa.  

Any mental illness (AMI) refers to any mental, behavioral, or emotional disorder. Impacts of AMI can range from no impairment to mild, moderate, or even severe impairment (including people with SMI). Since those suffering from SMI often require specialized therapies and treatment, studying and allocating resources separately is necessary to ensure the highest possible quality of care.  

What Constitutes a Serious Mental Illness (SMI)? 

As defined above, a serious mental illness causes significant interference with one’s daily life. Many different diagnoses fall under the SMI umbrella. Some common ones include:  

  • Bipolar Disorder. A brain disorder that causes intense mood, energy, and activity shifts. People experience manic episodes, feeling extremely happy, euphoric, and energized, followed by depressive episodes, in which they feel deeply sad and have low energy. 
  • Major Depressive Disorder (MDD). One of the most common mental disorders, symptoms vary from person to person but may include sadness, hopelessness, anxiety, pessimism, irritability, worthlessness, and fatigue.  
  • Schizophrenia. A chronic and severe mental disorder that causes people to interpret reality abnormally. People may experience hallucinations, delusions, extremely disordered thinking, and a reduced ability to function in their daily lives. 

While specific causes are unknown, a serious mental illness is triggered by various factors, including family history, brain chemistry, and significant life events like trauma or death. It’s imperative to understand that those suffering from serious mental illness have no choice, weakness, or character flaw. Mental illness is a chronic disease that requires ongoing treatment and care

Warning Signs for Serious Mental Illness 

If you’re concerned about the wellbeing of a close friend or family member, it’s best to be aware of a few of the top warning signs that someone might be suffering from a serious mental illness (SMI). These include changes in… 

  • Behavior: Routine activities such as sleeping, eating, or social activities may become irregular or unpredictable.  
  • Mood: Such as extended feelings of sadness, anxiety, or hopelessness. 
  • Thinking: This could include difficulty concentrating, making decisions, or thinking clearly. 
  • Speech: Talking more or less than usual, having trouble making sense, or expressing thoughts clearly. 
  • Perception: Including seeing or hearing things that are not there or believing things that are not true. 
  • Judgment: This could include making poor decisions or taking dangerous or harmful risks. 
  • Self-care: Such as neglecting personal hygiene or not taking care of oneself. 
  • Relationships: This could include withdrawing from friends and family or getting into trouble with the law. 

These are just a few warning signs of a serious mental illness, not an exhaustive list. If you are concerned that your teen or young adult may be struggling with a mental illness, having an open and honest conversation with them and seeking professional help is essential. 

 Here are a few additional tips to recognize signs of SMI: 

  • Pay attention to changes in behavior over time. 
  • Be aware of changes in mood, thinking, and perception. 
  • Look for changes in self-care and relationships. 
  • Talk to the person about your concerns. 
  • Encourage them to seek professional help. 

If you are concerned that you or someone you know may be struggling with a mental illness, please contact a mental health professional. Help is available; you don’t have to go through this alone. 

Treatment Options for Serious Mental Illness 

Research from the National Institute of Mental Health reports that “in 2021, there were an estimated 14.1 million adults aged 18 or older in the United States with SMI. This number represented 5.5% of all U.S. adults.” With such a high volume of those suffering from SMI in the U.S. alone, resources and treatment options are slowly becoming more accessible for those who need them.  

There are various treatment options available for people suffering from SMI. The best treatment plan will vary depending on the individual’s needs and circumstances. 

Some of the most common treatment options for serious mental illness include: 

  • Medication: There are a variety of medications available to treat SMI, such as antidepressants, antipsychotics, and mood stabilizers. In combination with other treatments, medication helps relieve the symptoms of mental illness and improve quality of life. 
  • Psychotherapy: Psychotherapy is talk therapy that helps people understand and manage serious mental health conditions. There are many types of psychotherapy, and the best type for an individual depends on their specific needs. 
  • Support Groups: Support groups provide people with a safe and supportive environment to connect with others who experience similar challenges. Support groups also provide practical advice and emotional support. 
  • Peer Support: Peer support is a type of support that comes from people who have lived experience with SMI. This can be an invaluable resource for people looking for understanding and acceptance. 
  • Social Skills Training: Helpful for those who have difficulty with social interactions due to SMI, social skills training helps develop the skills needed to interact with others healthily.  
  • Vocational Rehabilitation: Most beneficial for those with difficulty holding down a job due to SMI, vocational rehabilitation allows people to develop the skills they need to find and maintain employment.  
  • Housing Assistance: As many folks suffering from SMI struggle to find stable housing, housing assistance fills that gap.  

While many treatment options are available, there is no one-size-fits-all treatment for mental illness. The best treatment plan depends on the individual’s specific needs and circumstances. Talk to a mental health professional about your options if you or a loved one struggles with serious mental illness, or is showing signs of an SMI. 

To learn more about mental health disorders or to seek the help of a mental health professional, do not hesitate to call Turnbridge. Turnbridge is a recognized mental health treatment provider with both inpatient and outpatient programs for young men and women. Call 877-581-1793 to speak with a treatment specialist today.