There is a common misconception that mental illness appears out of nowhere without any warning signs, but that is not true. Often, there are early warning signs that friends, family members, and even the individual may recognize before it becomes a full-blown mental illness.
Early intervention is crucial when it comes to managing the symptoms of a mental illness. Therefore, being aware of the warning signs of mental illness is important so you can take the appropriate steps if you see them in yourself or others. The right interventions, especially when applied at the very onset of symptoms, can delay or perhaps even prevent a mental illness.
The warning signs to watch for are changes in behavior, attitudes, thinking, and emotional response that seem to defy explanation.
Early Warning Signs in Adults
There are a number of early warning signs that could be indicative of a mental illness. However, it’s important to remember that these are just warning signs, not a checklist with which to diagnose mental illness in yourself or a loved one.
Most people follow sleep patterns that are long-established, such as when they go to bed and how long they tend to sleep at night. A sudden and dramatic change in sleep patterns could be a warning sign of a mental or emotional affliction.
One’s appetite may change as a result of dealing with a range of different illnesses, both physical and psychological. This can equate to a significant reduction in food intake or overeating, either of which could be cause for further observation.
Lack of Personal Care
Most people take steps to maintain their personal appearance and hygiene. So when someone suddenly changes their grooming habits, he or she could potentially be experiencing a symptom of mental illness. A common example would be for someone to stop bathing or brushing his or her teeth on a regular basis.
Avoiding friends and social activities, especially when the individual had previously been social, is often cause for concern. Social withdrawal could be evidence of a more significant issue, which is that the individual has become disinterested in things he or she previously enjoyed.
Similar to social disengagement, apathy refers to a lack of interest in things that the individual used to care about. Whether or not he or she actually avoids those things, the individual’s attitude towards them will seem to have decreased without provocation or explanation.
Threats of suicide or suicidal ideation should always be taken seriously and is a warning sign for a number of different emotional disorders.
Altered cognition is a very common warning sign of a mental illness, particularly when the individual’s thoughts become illogical. When an individual is thinking illogically, he or she is prone to making extremely poor decisions that can put his or her well-being—and the well-being of loved ones—at risk.
When it comes to a loved one’s behavior, you probably have enough experience with the person to know how he or she usually behaves; however, if the individual has started to behave in a manner that’s uncharacteristic, you should pay special attention to the individual so you can observe for any other warning signs.
Here we’re referring to sudden and dramatic mood changes that are not related to things happening in the individual’s life.
This isn’t just about emotional sensitivity but, rather, can also be about sensitivity to sights, sounds, smells, and touches.
Another common warning sign of mental illness is intense suspicion; the individual may become suspicious or even fearful of others. This often manifests as increased nervousness around other people.
Lack of Insight
The individual may exhibit a lack of self-awareness and insight, which often appears as him or her not being aware of his or her feelings or behavior.
The warning signs to watch for are changes in behavior, attitudes, thinking, and emotional response that seem to defy explanation. These are changes that are out of the ordinary and seem unrelated to what’s happening in the person’s life.
If you see some of these warning signs, you should consider staging an intervention. Let the individual know what you are seeing and offer to help with finding the right combination of support and treatment.
Early Warning Signs in Children & Adolescents
Mental illness doesn’t just impact adults; it impacts children as well.
Since children are still learning how to articulate their feelings, thoughts, and emotions, mental health warning signs tend to be more behaviorally based for children, including:
- More frequent and intense temper tantrums
- Increased aggression
- Increased disobedience
- Recurring nightmares and trouble sleeping
- A decline in school performance
- Exhibiting intense worry, fear, or anxiety about seemingly mundane activities like going to school or taking a bath
- Behavior that borders on dangerous
- Sadness lasting weeks or more
- Disinterest in activities they previously enjoyed
- Sudden shifts in mood
- Social isolation
Fortunately, there are mental health programs and treatments for children. If you’re unsure which resource(s) would benefit your child, consider talking to your child’s primary care provider or perhaps even his or her school counselor. Additionally, you can always reach out to mental health organizations that help children and adolescents.
How to Get Help
If you or someone you know is exhibiting early warning signs of mental illness, there are steps you can take to get those symptoms under control.
The first step should always be to learn more about mental health (just like you are right now). By being more informed and knowledgeable, you’ll have a greater appreciation for good mental health as well as the ability to more easily identify signs of troubling mental health.
Second, reach out to your primary care doctor to discuss your concerns. Alternatively, you could reach out to your local state or county mental health authority for additional resources.
Or you can call the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) as they can provide information about services and support in your community.
Or you can let us connect you with resources that would provide the help that you need.
If you or someone you know is suicidal, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, or dial 9-1-1.
Questions to Ask Your Doctor
Nervous about talking to your doctor about your mental health? Don’t be. We’ve put together some questions to get the conversation with your doctor started and to help you get the assistance you need.
- I think I have symptoms of a mental health illness. Do I have a mental health condition?
- What kind of treatment do I need?
- Can you help me? Or can you refer me to someone who can help me?
- Do I need to see a psychiatrist? Do I need to take prescription medication?
- Can you recommend a therapist or counselor for me?
- Is there anything I can do right away that would help my situation?
- How do I explain to other people what I am experiencing regarding my mental health?
The important thing is to let your doctor know how you’re feeling and about your concerns for your mental health. There are no wrong questions and your doctor will not judge you.
Getting a Diagnosis
Before you can get help, you must be evaluated by a mental health professional so that he or she can determine if you have a mental illness and, if so, which diagnosis you have. Unlike with many physical illnesses, there are no medical tests you can take to let you know if you have a mental illness.
Once there’s a diagnosis, treatment can begin.
Treatment is highly individualized since every person’s situation, preferences, and needs are unique. In fact, there is a range of treatment options available with the right choice(s) depending on which mental disorder(s) you are dealing with and how long you’ve been experiencing symptoms.
Some of the most common forms of treatment for mental health disorders include:
- Counseling or psychotherapy
- Support groups
- Prescription medicine
- Experiential therapies
- Hospital or residential treatment programs
The purpose of mental health treatment is to provide the tools needed to alleviate symptoms of mental illness so the individual can live a healthy, productive life. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.