Warning Signs of Mental Illness and Where to Turn

Mental illness is very common in the United States today. The National Mental Health Institute states that about 26.2% of the population in the United States, or about 57.7 million people, has some kind of mental illness. About 6% of the population has severe mental illness. Mental illness is the major disabling factor in the United States today for adults from 18 to 44 years of age.

“Mental health problems” actually strike everyone at some point in his or her life. Whether it’s an acute but temporary episode of depression caused by the death of a loved one and eases on its own and without professional intervention, over time or the more lasting clinical depression that needs professional intervention and treatment.

“Mental illness” is defined as a disease that causes detrimental changes in behavior and thought that interfere with an individual’s life. Unlike acute episodes of stress or depression brought on by life events (but which nonetheless can themselves benefit from intervention such as a temporary course of medication or work with a therapist, if distressing enough), these changes are prolonged and interfere with an individual’s normal functioning.

Before mental illness is diagnosed, physical problems that may cause symptoms should be ruled out and treated, such as an under- or overactive thyroid. Once any physical causes are ruled out, though, mental illness should be considered a possibility and appropriate treatment sought if any of the following symptoms occur in adults:

  • Thinking becomes disorganized and not clear
  • There is prolonged depression or sadness present (can either be related to a precipitating event such as the death of a loved one or come “out of the blue”)
  • The person exhibits periods of extreme or worsening depression, followed by periods of increasing and extreme excitability, euphoria, energy and/or engages in impulsive behavior such as excessive and inappropriate spending
  • Withdrawing from friends and family
  • Sleeping too much or too little
  • Eating too much or too little
  • Excessive anger out of proportion to the situation at hand
  • Excessive worrying or being overly anxious or fearful
  • Inability to handle normal daily tasks or to function “as usual”
  • Thoughts of suicide
  • Denial that there’s any problem when confronted
  • Physical illnesses or complaints with no medical basis
  • Abuse of drugs, alcohol or other mood-altering substances

In children, symptoms can include:
  • A drop in grades or other uncharacteristic changes in school performance
  • Poor grades even when effort is applied
  • Expressing anxiety or worry, such as a refusal to go to bed or unwillingness to go to school
  • Having frequent nightmares
  • Frequently disobeying or showing anger or aggression
  • Having temper tantrums past the appropriate age (i.e., school age)

For adolescents, symptoms can include:
  • Drug and alcohol abuse
  • Inability to handle “everyday” problems or perform daily activities
  • Sleeping too much or too little
  • Eating too much or too little
  • Physical illnesses or complaints with no medical basis
  • Engaging in truancy, theft or vandalism or “excessively” defying authority beyond normal teenaged rebellion
  • Obsession with gaining weight
  • Protracted moodiness or depressive behavior, perhaps with changes in eating or sleeping and/or with thoughts of death or suicide
  • Excessive anger out of proportion to the situation at hand

There is help if you or someone you love is suffering from any of the above symptoms and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. The National Alliance on Mental Illness has resources to assist you in finding help local to you.

Visit http://www.nimh.nih.gov/healthinformation/gettinghelp.cfm for more information, and/or http://mentalhealth.samhsa.gov/databases , offered by the federal government’s Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, to find help in your area.