Frequently Asked Questions

General Questions

What is mental illness?
A mental illness is a medical condition that disrupts a person’s thinking, feeling, mood, ability to relate to others, and daily functioning. Just as diabetes is a disorder of the pancreas, mental illnesses are brain disorders that often result in a diminished capacity for coping with the ordinary demands of life.  No one is at fault for mental illnesses, although certain life experiences may exacerbate an underlying disorder not previously recognized.

Mental illnesses can affect persons of any age, race, religion or income. Mental illnesses are not the result of personal weakness, lack of character, or poor upbringing. Most people diagnosed with a serious mental illness can succeed in life with an individualized treatment plan and live in recovery.

Serious mental illnesses include but are not limited to: major depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder, several anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, and borderline personality disorders.

How are mental illnesses formally diagnosed?
Mental health professionals can perform diagnoses by use of tests, observations of patients during face-to-face interactions, social histories with families, and symptoms described by the patient. Health care professionals use a standardized coding/naming system to describe the many types of mental illnesses.
What do I do in a crisis?
If the family member with a mental illness is:

  • in danger of physical injury,
  • out of control,
  • talking about suicide,
  • posing a threat to the safety of other persons,

…you need to know what steps to take.

Contact 9-1-1 or the DuPage County Crisis Line at (630) 627-1700.
Consult ahead of time with a mental health professional or with the DuPage County Health Department (Access and Crisis Center 630-627-1700) so that you will know how to obtain services when you need them. Keep a list of important information by the telephone.

What if my loved one needs hospitalization but won’t agree to it?
If at all possible, voluntary hospitalization is always better. However, often the reasoning ability of a person with a mental illness in crisis is impaired, and it is not always possible to convince him or her of the need for inpatient treatment; therefore, involuntary hospitalization may become necessary.

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Who can prescribe medications?
Although counselors, social workers, and clinical psychologists (e.g., PsyD or PhD) are all resources for a person having a mental illness, until very recently only physicians (M.D.), preferably a psychiatrist, were authorized to prescribe medications. Now, due to recent legislation, in some cases a psychologist after extended training will be able to prescribe medications.  Psychiatrists often prescribe patient-specific combinations of medications based on the symptoms and changes of symptoms.  Each person responds differently to the various medications available for illnesses with similar symptoms.

While some medications affect symptoms in a few days, others require continuous dosage for four to six weeks before evaluation of their effectiveness can be validly determined.  It is necessary to continue taking the medications, even though symptoms have improved.

How can I find a psychiatrist?
A psychiatrist is a medical physician who specializes in the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of mental illnesses, including substance abuse and addiction. NAMI DuPage does not provide referrals to psychiatrists.  However, the web site for most major hospitals includes a “Find a Doctor” feature, allowing you to select “psychiatry” or “psychiatrist” from a list. The most useful “Find a Doctor” web tools (a) allow you to enter an illness if you already have a diagnosis (e.g., bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, panic attacks), (b) provide biographical and experience information about the physicians identified by the search process, and (c) provide a list of the types of mental illnesses in which the physicians specialize.  Selecting a psychiatrist is a very personal decision, because the patient must be comfortable sharing inner thoughts and feelings often not communicated to others.
How can I find legal assistance related to mental illness?
NAMI national has a “NAMI Legal Center” that provides lawyer referrals as a service to its members and the general public.  NAMI requires attorneys on the Lawyer Referral Panel to complete questionnaires regarding their specialties, fees, education and liability insurance.  Communications to the center remain confidential, as does our attorney information.  NAMI does not verify qualifications or credentials of attorneys on the panel, and supplement our listings with the Disability Law Directory of the American Bar Association, the Directory of the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel, the National Legal Aid and Defender Association Directory and the Directory of Local Pro Bono Programs.

Illinois-specific legal information and referrals resources include Illinois Legal Aid, and the DuPage County Legal Aid Service sponsored by the DuPage County Bar Association.

Youth FAQ in the Classrooms

How do you get mental illness?
There’s a lot we still don’t understand about what causes mental illness. In general, doctors think mental illness is caused by a combination of a variety of biological and environmental factors, such as:

  • Inherited traits: Mental illness is more common in people who have a biological family member with a mental illness. You may already have a genetic vulnerability to developing a mental illness, and a stressful or traumatic life experience may trigger the actual illness itself.
  • Biological factors: In addition to inherited traits, outside forces have been linked to mental illness—for example, traumatic brain injury or exposure to viruses or toxins while in the womb.
  • Life experiences: Sometimes challenges or traumatic experiences in your life, such as the loss of a loved one, being assaulted or prolonged high stress can play a role in triggering mental illness. Other life experiences that leads to low self-esteem or a history of sexual or physical abuse can also be a factor. Certain life experiences can also lead to unhealthy patterns of thinking linked to mental illness, such as pessimism or distorted ways of thinking.
  • Brain chemistry: Referred to as biochemical causes, and are changes which occur in the brain and are thought to affect mood and other aspects of mental health. Naturally occurring brain chemicals called neurotransmitters play a role in some mental health conditions. In some cases, hormonal imbalances can affect mental health. Doctors think that inherited traits, life experiences and biological factors can all affect the brain chemistry linked to mental illnesses.
Can mental illness be cured?
At this time, there is no cure for mental illness. But there are many very effective treatments such as medication and psychotherapy. With appropriate treatment and support, recovery is not only possible, but highly likely.
What should my friend who is showing signs of depression do if he doesn’t want to ask anyone for help?

Continue to urge your friend to seek help. Facing that you might have mental health issues can be very challenging for many reasons. You could offer to go with him to talk to someone. There are also several websites and phone numbers on the NAMI website that your friend can use to get information and support anonymously.

Which illness do you think is the worst?

It’s difficult to say that any of the illnesses are worse than another. Each person and their experience with mental illness is unique and can be very challenging at times. Also, realize that all mental health conditions are on a spectrum. Some can be very mild and others very severe like any other physical illness someone might get.

Why don’t you just get over depression?
When depression continues over a period of time, you may need help to deal with it effectively.  It is not something that we can will ourselves out of and into recovery. Additionally, it may take some time to find good interventions like medication and the right type of psychotherapy to create an effective treatment plan.
What if your parents really won’t believe you that you are depressed or experiencing other symptoms of mental illness?

Don’t stop trying to talk to them.  But know that it’s not that they don’t care about you. They likely don’t have the education that you and your friends are getting in health class and might not really understand. You could try talking to a counselor or anyone at your school, your doctor or another caring adult in your life. In addition, you can get advice anonymously from kids your age that have been there, online at or you can text or call the teen line that’s listed in the resources we cite for you. They will be able to support you as you continue the conversation with your family and the process of seeking help.

My friend is very depressed, but made me promise not to tell her parents. What can I do?

First, that’s wonderful that you want to help your friend. You can encourage her to talk to another adult such as a teacher, coach or counselor. There are also several websites and phone numbers sited here that you and your friend can use to get information, ideas on how to help yourself or a friend and receive support anonymously.  If your friend mentions having suicidal thoughts, talk to them about it, listen without judgment, but most importantly, TELL a trusted adult as soon as possible. It is not a betrayal of your friendship to get help for your friend during this critical time. When I asked my friends from high school why they didn’t tell anyone when I told them I was having suicidal thoughts, they all said they now wished they had risked me being upset with them for telling someone in order to get me help much earlier.
ACT= Acknowledge your friend is suffering, Care by telling that you are concerned for their well-being, and Tell a trusted adult immediately.

Does everyone have to take medications?
No, but many people find that a combination of medication and psychotherapy works best for them or their loved one.  There are also many alternative types of treatment for mental illness. Sometimes people are able to manage their illness through coping skills and a strong support network. However, it’s best to discuss your options with your doctor and determine your treatment plan together.
If someone takes medicine will they have to take it for the rest of their life?

It depends on the individual, the severity of their symptoms and whether or not other forms of treatment are effective at helping the individual manage their symptoms. The decision to stop taking medication is definitely one that should only be made in consultation with your doctor.

Also, many people try stopping their medication when they begin to feel better—but often the symptoms came back. It’s frustrating; with most illnesses, you stop taking medication once you feel better. However, with mental illness, many people learn that if they feel better, it just means they have found the right treatment combination and if they want to keep feeling better, they need to continue taking their medication.

Why do people stop taking medication or not want to take it in the first place?

Think about a time you took medication for a physical issue such as a headache. There’s a good chance once the symptoms disappeared, you quit taking the medication. Right? The same thing happens when people take medication for a mental illness. An individual may believe (or want to believe) that they are better, which sometimes leads them to stop taking their medication.

How early or how late in life can people get a mental illness?

About half of all individuals with mental illness began to show symptoms by age 14. Sometimes people can start to show signs as early as four or five. With about 75 percent of all individuals beginning to show symptoms by age 24, it is most common for mental illness to begin sometime before an individual reaches their late 20s. However, although people might start experiencing symptoms early in life, it commonly takes many years, even decades for some people to seek treatment.  Early intervention makes for easier friendships, school work, and family harmony.

Do you regret not doing anything to help your son/daughter earlier?

As a parent, I wish I would have known more about mental illness and been able to identify the signs my son was showing earlier. I could have been a stronger advocate for my son by giving more details to his psychiatrist that could have been very helpful.

Why did you attempt suicide? Were you sorry it didn’t work?

That’s a really complicated question to answer; there were a lot of reasons. I was feeling beyond miserable and I didn’t think I would feel better, ever. At the time, I wasn’t able to see that my situation was temporary. I’m not sure if I was sorry it didn’t work in that moment, but once I got help and began to feel better, I was incredibly grateful to be here and to be healthy. Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem….there is help and hope!