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The Signs of Mental Illness

A mental illness is a disease or disorder that results in disturbances in thinking, feeling, and behavior. The disturbance can be mild to severe.

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Mental illnesses will typically affect the ability to function and/or cope with the ordinary demands of life. There are literally hundreds of classified types of mental illnesses.

There are several universal signs and symptoms that someone might be suffering from a form of mental illness. These include:

  • Difficulties or problems with everyday functioning.
  • Changes in emotions or mood.
  • Problems with cognition (thinking).
  • Withdrawing socially or isolating oneself.
  • A sense of hopelessness.
  • Engaging in risky behaviors.
  • Lack of self-care.
  • Breaks with reality.

Many people may demonstrate one or two of these for a short period of time and still not qualify for a diagnosis of mental illness. However, when a person begins to demonstrate several of these signs for a prolonged period, it is often a sign of mental illness. The actual time period depends on the type of mental health disorder being diagnosed, but if someone consistently demonstrates three or more of the symptoms for a two-week period or longer, they should be evaluated.

Mental illnesses are treatable. They require the assistance of trained professionals who can administer medications and behavioral interventions like therapy.

Disease or Disorder?

The distinction between what is a disease and what constitutes a disorder is rather fine. Some mental illnesses are recognized diseases, whereas others are more along the line of a disorder.

  • A disease is a distinctive process that has a specific cause and very characteristic symptoms.
  • A disorder is considered to be a disturbance, interruption, or irregularity of normal functioning.

All diseases could also be defined as disorders, but not all disorders are diseases.

Some types of mental illnesses, like major depressive disorder and many phobias, do not have a distinct or specific cause that can be identified objectively, so they are not diseases. Although you may have read that depression is caused by a lack of neurotransmitters, this has never been clinically demonstrated and is more of a hypothesis based on the way some of the medications are believed to work in people who have depression.

Some forms of mental illness are considered to be diseases, such as schizophrenia or certain forms of dementia that are listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – Fifth Edition (DSM-5).

General Signs of a Mental Illness

Difficulties With Everyday Functioning

One of the first signs that often occurs in someone diagnosed with any form of mental illness is that they have difficulty functioning in their everyday routine. The difficulty may come on gradually or it may be abrupt, depending on the form of mental illness the person has.

This can include difficulty performing at work (poor productivity) or school (declining grades), trouble maintaining personal responsibilities (financial obligations or childcare), problems in important personal relationships, or difficulty coping with the everyday stressors of life. One of the major qualifiers of any of the diagnoses in the DSM-5 is that the behavior must produce significant distress and/or dysfunction in the person.

Changes in Emotions or Mood

Uncharacteristic alterations in mood or emotions, or any unexplained changes in mood or emotions, are often early signs that someone may be suffering from a form of mental illness.

The person might feel:

  • Uncharacteristically depressed.
  • Excessively high levels of energy.
  • A lack of emotions or feelings.
  • Extremely elated emotions or feelings.
  • Unusual anxiety.
  • Uncharacteristic or unexplained moodiness or anger.

If these severe changes in feelings are persistent and do not appear have a solid explanation (such as a death or other major life event), they can be a cause for concern.

Problems With Cognition (Thinking)

A relatively sudden and unexplained onset of difficulty concentrating, problems with memory, and periods of confusion can be signs that someone may be suffering from a mental illness.

For instance, people with major depressive disorder often begin to think very slowly, have trouble concentrating, and may have problems with their memory. Often, people with severe anxiety have significant problems concentrating on a single topic.

Any uncharacteristic cognitive changes might be signs of mental health issues.

Withdrawing Socially or Isolating Oneself

If someone begins to uncharacteristically isolate from others, it could be a sign that they may be suffering from some form of mental illness.

If they seem to be spending too much time alone, cancel social interactions with others, and begin to miss work, these can be warning signs.

A Sense of Hopelessness

When someone begins to experience the early signs of mental illness, they may begin to feel overwhelmed, particularly if they have more than three of the above signs. They may feel as if there is no hope.

When someone feels hopeless and overwhelmed, they can become desperate and harm themselves or others. When someone begins to display hopelessness along with other signs of mental illness, this should be taken as a serious sign that they need immediate help.

Engaging in Risky Behaviors

Many of the types of mental illnesses listed in the DSM-5 are associated with an increased risk for substance abuse. When someone begins to abuse drugs or alcohol and displays some of the other signs above, they may have co-occurring disorders or a dual diagnosis (having a form of mental illness and a substance use disorder at the same time).

There are other types of risky behaviors among individuals displaying early signs of mental illness. These include:

  • Engaging in unsafe sex, often with multiple sex partners.
  • Spending large sums of money frivolously.
  • Driving after drinking alcohol or using drugs.

A person who is engaging in risky behaviors may be losing their ability to inhibit their impulses, which is associated with many different forms of mental illness.

Lack of Self-Care

When someone begins to neglect personal hygiene or other areas of self-care, this might be a sign that they are beginning to develop a severe form of mental illness.

When people begin to feel overwhelmed and hopeless, they may begin to neglect personal care. When they are having problems with cognition or restraining their emotions, they may not pay attention to self-care. This should be a cause for concern.

Breaks With Reality

When a person displays an uncharacteristic loss of the ability to discern reality from fantasy, this is a severe sign that the person may be experiencing a form of mental illness. This sign does not need to be accompanied by any of the other signs listed above. It is enough on its own to signify a major issue.

Breaks with reality include:

  • Hearing or seeing things that are not really there (hallucinations).
  • Being extremely suspicious that someone or an organization is out to get them or do them harm (paranoia).
  • Having the irrational belief that they are royalty, some famous historical figure, or an extremely important person (grandiosity).
  • Becoming detached from others.
  • Claiming they are leaving their body (dissociation).

Whenever someone suddenly demonstrates a break with their understanding of what is real and what is not, this is a severe sign that they might have some form of mental illness. See a medical doctor as soon as this is suspected.

The Stigma of Mental Illness

People with different types of mental illnesses often feel stigmatized — that others may believe they are not worthy of consideration or assistance. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Mental illnesses are treatable to some extent in nearly every case. Some forms of mental illness may not fully resolve even with extensive treatment, but most cases can be effectively managed with comprehensive treatment.

People with diagnosed mental illnesses often live full, productive lives. The key is an effective management plan that includes a combination of medication, therapy, and lifestyle changes.

Treating Mental Illness

There is no one-size-fits-all plan to effectively treat mental illness. Each person’s situation is unique and should be addressed on an individual basis.

While distinct treatment plans will vary substantially, the approach to treating most forms of mental illness will include some combination of the following:

  • Diagnosis: This is usually done through an intensive assessment of the person’s level of functioning over different domains. An official diagnosis can only be made by a mental health professional.
  • Plan design: A treatment plan will be developed based on the diagnosis. This plan will serve as the blueprint for treatment, and it is likely to evolve over time.
  • Medications: For some types of mental illness, medications may be the primary form of treatment. This is the case for bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.For other forms of mental illness, medication may be an adjunctive form of treatment to psychotherapy. This is the case for anxiety disorders, substance use disorders, and eating disorders.
  • Behavioral therapy: This includes various forms of therapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy. The goal is to change behaviors as well as the thoughts behind them.
  • Support: A solid support system is crucial to a successful recovery. This system can consist of family and close friends as well as peers in recovery.
  • Additional services: Other interventions may address specific needs, such as job training, tutoring, parenting classes, and case management services.
  • Ongoing care: Continued treatment and reassessment of functioning are necessary in order to modify treatment as appropriate. Some level of participation in treatment is always recommended. The intensity lessens over time and may eventually just involve therapy sessions every few weeks.

Because many different types of mental illness carry the potential for relapse, there is usually the need for long-term or lifelong intervention. People with bipolar disorder or schizophrenia will most likely need to be on medication over the course of their lifetime. In addition, ongoing therapy is generally recommended.

Those with dual diagnoses will need to be involved in long-term treatment for their substance use disorder. This includes a long-term aftercare program (continuing care) and sustained abstinence for at least five to seven years after they stop using their drug of choice. Very often, these individuals need a combination of medications and therapy or group participation for years.

The Importance of Professional Care

Don’t ignore the early signs of mental illness. These issues do not go away on their own. They require professional help that begins with a proper diagnosis.

If you recognize the signs of mental illness in yourself or in someone you know, it’s important to get help. While mental illnesses can involve debilitating symptoms, they can usually be managed with medication, therapy, and lifestyle changes. Prompt treatment often results in the best long-term outcomes.

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