Warning Signs of Mental Illness

By Jared Pingleton
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Sad woman looking out a window
Maria Dubova
How can you know whether a loved one might be suffering from mental illness?

It is estimated that nearly 20 percent of adults in the U.S. suffer from mental illness in any given year, and that between 14 and 20 percent of young people have experienced a mental, emotional or behavioral disorder within the past year. Of the 10 leading causes of disability identified in the United States, four are brain and behavior disorders: major depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Yet most major mental illnesses have a fairly gradual onset and rarely appear “out of the blue.” Generally, family members and friends will recognize that something about the individual is unusual, odd, or “not quite right” about their thinking, speech, behavior, or social interactions. This can be well before the diagnosable indicators of severe mental illness are fully manifested.

Being informed about early warning signs and developing symptoms can lead to appropriate intervention and treatment which often can help to greatly reduce the severity and stress of an illness to both the individual and their loved ones.

Consequently, early intervention can delay or even prevent the onset of a chronic course for a number of disorders. As with many medical conditions, early detection and treatment can not only help ease the person’s suffering more effectively, but many times the pain and subsequent course of treatment can be reduced accordingly. Being alert to key early warning symptoms may even prevent more severe distress and dysfunction. Here are some common signs and symptoms which are potentially indicative of mental illness:

  • Recent social withdrawal and loss of interest in relationship with others.
  • Intensified conflict and difficulty relating normally with others.
  • Unusual reduction in functioning at work, school, church and/or community activities.
  • Problems with concentration, memory, confusion, and cognitive processing.
  • Loss of initiative or desire to participate in normal and/or pleasurable activities.
  • Marked changes in sleep and/or appetite.
  • Rapid or dramatic shift in emotions or “mood swings.”
  • Deterioration in personal hygiene.
  • Excessive and/or unexplained fears, suspicions, worries and anxieties.
  • Numerous vague or ambiguous physical ailments and complaints.
  • Intense and prolonged feelings of sadness, nervousness, irritability or anger.
  • Progressive inability to cope with everyday stress and strain.
  • Heightened sensitivity to sensory stimuli such as sights, sounds, smells or touch.
  • Uncharacteristic, bizarre or peculiar behavior, thoughts and/or beliefs.
  • Vague or specific mentions of hopelessness, apathy, despair and/or suicidality.

Seeking expert advice

Please know that these symptoms in and of themselves cannot clearly or conclusively predict mental illness. In fact, symptoms of mental illness may be the result of a medical condition (for example, hypothyroidism may result in symptoms of depression). A person showing signs of mental illness should be screened by a physician to determine if there are any underlying medical issues. Barring any medical causes, persons exhibiting even a few of these are likely to be experiencing significant psychological problems which may be impairing or interfering with their ability to love and work well, and thus are candidates to be screened by a mental health professional.

Supportively and compassionately encouraging persons who are displaying several of these symptoms to seek help may prove difficult, but it is essential.

The stigma of medical help

One thing that should be considered is the role of pharmacologic assistance in the treatment of certain mental or emotional problems. There is a stigma attached to the use of medication to treat mental illnesses including depression, anxiety disorders and even more serious issues. Fortunately, that stigma has diminished somewhat in recent years, but it is still alive and well in many places.

As followers of Christ, we may feel that our problems should go away if we simply have more faith or trust in God. While faith and trust may be at the root of many of our difficulties, there are some issues that aren’t caused by deficiencies in our relationship with God. We live in a fallen world where things go wrong with our physical bodies, including our brains. For many whose disordered behaviors or thoughts are caused by chemical imbalances in the brain, the right medication can allow these individuals to regain balance along with the capacity to deal with personal issues and problematic beliefs and ways of thinking. We do our friends and loved ones an invaluable service by supporting them in their appropriate use of medication.

Copyright © 2014 Dr. Jared Pingleton. Used with permission. All rights reserved.

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About the Author

Jared Pingleton

Dr. Jared Pingleton is an author, clinical psychologist and minister. He is also the founder and former director of The Relationship Center in Missouri, and the former director of Focus on the Family’s counseling department. Jared and his wife, Linda, have four sons.

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