Warning Signs

What are the Warning Signs of Mental Illness?

Children

  • Mood changes. Look for feelings of sadness or withdrawal that last at least two weeks or severe mood swings that cause problems in relationships at home or school. Intense feelings. Be aware of feelings of overwhelming fear for no reason — sometimes with a racing heart or fast breathing — or worries or fears intense enough to interfere with daily activities.Behavior changes. This includes drastic changes in behavior or personality, as well as dangerous or out-of-control behavior.
  • Fighting frequently, using weapons or expressing a desire to badly hurt others also are warning signs.
  • Difficulty concentrating. Look for signs of trouble focusing or sitting still, both of which might lead to poor performance in school.
  • Unexplained weight loss. A sudden loss of appetite, frequent vomiting or use of laxatives might indicate an eating disorder.
  • Physical harm. Sometimes a mental health condition leads to suicidal thoughts or actual attempts at self-harm or suicide.
  • Substance abuse. Some kids use drugs or alcohol to try to cope with their feelings.
  • Changes in school performance
  • Poor grades despite strong efforts
  • Excessive worry or anxiety (i.e., refusing to go to bed or school)
  • Hyperactivity
  • Persistent nightmares
  • Persistent disobedience or aggression
  • Frequent temper tantrums 

Older Children / Pre-adolescents

  • Substance abuse
  • Inability to cope with problems and daily activities
  • Changes in sleeping and/or eating habits
  • Excessive complaints of physical ailments
  • Defiance of authority, truancy, theft, and/or vandalism
  • Intense fear of weight gain
  • Prolonged negative mood, often accompanied by poor appetite or thoughts of death
  • Frequent outbursts of anger

Adults

  • Confused thinking
  • Prolonged depression (sadness or irritability)
  • Feelings of extreme highs and lows
  • Excessive fears, worries and anxieties
  • Social withdrawal
  • Dramatic changes in eating or sleeping habits
  • Strong feelings of anger
  • Delusions or hallucinations
  • Growing inability to cope with daily problems and activities
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Denial of obvious problems
  • Numerous unexplained physical ailments
  • Substance abuse

To learn more about symptoms that are specific to a particular mental illness, refer to the Mental Health America brochure on that illness.

Warning Signs of Drug/Alcohol Abuse in Teens

Someone with alcohol dependence may suffer serious withdrawal symptoms, such as trembling, delusions, hallucinations, and sweating, if he or she stops drinking suddenly (“cold turkey”). Once alcohol dependence develops, it becomes very hard to stop drinking without outside help. Medical detoxificationClick here to see more information. may be needed.

Symptoms of an alcohol problem include

  • Personality changes
  • Blackouts
  • Drinking more and more for the same “high”
  • Denial of the problem

A person with an alcohol problem may

  • Gulp or sneak drinks
  • Drink alone or early in the morning
  • Suffer from the shakes
  • He or she may also have family, school, or work problems or get in trouble with the law because of drinking.

Physical Signs

  • Loss of appetite, increase in appetite, any changes in eating habits, unexplained weight loss or gain.
  • Slowed or staggering walk; poor physical coordination.
  • Inability to sleep, awake at unusual times, unusual laziness.
  • Red, watery eyes; pupils larger or smaller than usual; blank stare.
  • Cold, sweaty palms; shaking hands.
  • Puffy face, blushing or paleness.
  • Smell of substance on breath, body or clothes.
  • Extreme hyperactivity; excessive talkativeness. Runny nose; hacking cough.
  • Needle marks on lower arm, leg or bottom of feet.
  • Nausea, vomiting or excessive sweating.
  • Tremors or shakes of hands, feet or head.
  • Irregular heartbeat.

Behavioral Signs

  • Change in overall attitude/personality with no other identifiable cause.
  • Changes in friends; new hang-outs; sudden avoidance of old crowd; doesn’t want to talk about new friends; friends are known drug users.
  • Change in activities or hobbies.
  • Drop in grades at school or performance at work; skips school or is late for school.
  • Change in habits at home; loss of interest in family and family activities.
  • Difficulty in paying attention; forgetfulness.
  • General lack of motivation, energy, self-esteem, “I don’t care” attitude.
  • Sudden oversensitivity, temper tantrums, or resentful behavior.
  • Moodiness, irritability, or nervousness.
  • Silliness or giddiness.
  • Paranoia
  • Excessive need for privacy; unreachable.
  • Secretive or suspicious behavior.
  • Car accidents.
  • Chronic dishonesty.
  • Unexplained need for money, stealing money or items.
  • Change in personal grooming habits.
  • Possession of drug paraphernalia.

The key is change; it is important to watch for any significant changes in your child’s physical appearance, personality, attitude or behavior.

30 Things You Should Know About Mental Illness

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