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10 Warning Signs for Mental Illness

Warning Signs for Mental Illness

You have started noticing a change in someone you love. You can’t quite put your finger on it, but something feels different and you are worried. Could they be struggling with their mental health? At Carolina Dunes Behavioral Health in Leland, North Carolina, we treat a wide range of mental health concerns, and we want you to be able to identify the early indicators of mental illness so that you, your friends, and your family can get help and start to recover as soon as possible.

A Common Problem with Mental Health

One in five adults struggles with mental health and up to half of all people with mental illness start to display symptoms by the age of 14. Despite the common occurrence of mental illness, many people do not receive help for years after they begin to struggle. The failure to recognize and respond to red flags for mental illness may be partially due to: 

  • Stigma
  • Lack of information about mental health 
  • Biases on the part of the person’s family, friends, and medical team
  • Individual symptoms not perfectly fitting textbook examples of a particular diagnosis

Delayed detection and treatment can postpone recovery and make it more difficult to manage mental health long-term.

Warning Signs for Mental Illness

Everyone goes through tough times, and one bad day does not automatically mean that someone is experiencing a mental health condition. However, if you spot several of these indicators happening over weeks or months, it is probably time to talk to your loved one about what you see and make a plan to ensure they have adequate support:

  • Changes in sleep patterns and energy levels – your friend or family member is sleeping far more or far less than before. You might see that no matter how much they sleep, they are always tired. They may not have the energy to fulfill their obligations, let alone engage in any recreational activities. For people experiencing a manic episode, no matter how little they sleep, they seem energized. Changes in sex drive can also signal a problem.
  • Frequent pain – it seems like this person always has a headache, a stomach ache, nausea, or a backache. Perhaps this is the result of a diagnosed medical condition. We already know that physical illness can impact mental health. Up to half of all people diagnosed with medical conditions causing chronic pain also experience depression. There also may not be a known medical cause for the pain. Depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses can have physical symptoms.  
  • Perfectionism – this symptom is often overlooked because it is viewed as an asset. While perfectionistic behavior can lead to high work performance and academic achievement, it can also be an indicator of eating disorders and anxiety, among other things. As with anything else, a person needs to be balanced in how hard they push themselves.
  • Numbed or really big emotions – people who feel little to no emotion, even about things that used to bring them great joy, may be depressed, while massive mood swings that seem unrelated to what is going on around the person could signal bipolar disorder. Irritability, sadness, and worry that seem out of proportion to an issue can also signal certain mental health concerns.   
  • Avoidant behavior – more than simple procrastination, a person with this behavior is potentially fearful of a certain person, place, or activity. How this manifests can vary considerably. People with schizophrenia, for example, may develop a delusion that a certain person is trying to harm them or that the food from a specific grocery store is unsafe. A person with PTSD may experience flashbacks when they return to a location where they were sexually assaulted and no longer be willing to drive near that location.
  • Changes in Appearance – lack of attention to grooming or personal hygiene, sudden increases or decreases in weight, or generally looking unwell can signal mental health struggles.
  • Substance misuse – heavy drinking, misusing prescription medications, or using illicit substances can all be signs of someone who is trying to (consciously or not) self-medicate their mental health struggles.
  • Ideas that don’t align with reality – when a person seems to believe things that don’t make sense or are clearly not true, it is sometimes referred to as a delusion. This could be anything from believing that the government is watching them to thinking that they are a famous and powerful public figure.
  • Suicidal thoughts – there are some different ways people typically signal if they are considering ending their life, which might include:
  • Wishing they were dead, saying others would be better off if they were not around, or saying that they should kill themselves
  • Being preoccupied with death or violence
  • Indicating that they feel trapped or hopeless
  • Giving away favorite items and otherwise wrapping up loose ends
  • Saying goodbye to loved ones in a way that feels very final
  • Gathering up whatever they would use to kill themselves
  • Experiencing things that others do not – hallucinations can present in a variety of different ways: 
    • voices no one else can hear, which may be menacing or harmless in nature
    • physical sensations like bugs crawling on their skin
    • things that aren’t there, which may or may not be distressing 

Child-Specific Warning Signs for Mental Illness and Red Flags

While children and adolescents may exhibit some of the same concerns listed above, their development level and developing language skills may also cause them to display the following behaviors:

  • Changes in school performance
  • Aggressive or defiant behavior
  • Nightmares
  • Tantrums
  • Intense sensitivity to sounds, smells and physical sensations
  • Behavior that seems out of character or unusual for a child

If you aren’t sure if what you are seeing signals a mental health disorder, it is better to err on the side of caution by getting support for your loved one. At Carolina Dunes, we offer no-cost, confidential mental health assessments. If you think you or a loved one might benefit from mental health treatment, we can help you take the first steps.

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