Person touching the shoulder of another.

Understanding the early signs of mental illness can alert you that a friend, family member or co-worker is struggling. Just like knowing CPR can save lives during an emergency, knowing signs of mental illness can enable early intervention that improves quality of life and potentially prevents self-harm.

Mental health struggles have been on the rise in people of all ages, even before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. As society becomes more complex, so do the diseases that affect mental health. The chief factor is feeling alone. We don't always know how to ask for help, and we don't always think our struggles are worth getting help.

When parents, family members, friends or teachers recognize that someone is struggling and reach out with a simple question like, "Are you OK?" it can help connect that person to the care they need.

How to recognize early signs of mental illness

Keep an eye out for any sudden or abrupt departure from usual behavior. For example, if someone who's normally social suddenly wants to be alone most of the time, or if someone who's usually physically active wants to watch TV all day, that's a good reason to check in with them.

The early signs of mental illness can vary at different ages or stages of life. It can be difficult to read children’s emotions, and they will have a difficult time explaining them to you, which is developmentally normal. With small children, an early sign of stress may be suddenly having accidents or wetting the bed after being potty-trained. Older children may experience night terrors or frequent nightmares.

Mental illness is more difficult to identify in teenagers and preteens. They may hide those symptoms due to society’s pressures. This is when self-harm becomes more of a possibility. Kids who are cutting themselves may hide the wounds and scars by suddenly wearing long sleeves or pants. Watch out for a loss in interest in previously loved activities. Older adults are often hit hard by loneliness, depression and mental illness but may be less likely to ask for help. Some older adults feel like they can be a burden on our society, so feelings of guilt and isolation are telltale signs.

Other early signs of mental illness — including depression, anxiety, substance use or other disorders — can include:

  • Not sleeping or sleeping too much
  • Changes in eating patterns, including eating too much or loss of appetite, even for favorite foods
  • Mood changes, such as irritability or lack of emotional response
  • Lack of energy
  • Withdrawal from usually enjoyed activities
  • Unexplained pain or symptoms, such as headaches or stomachaches
  • Excessive worry
  • Feelings of guilt
  • Difficulties adjusting to changes in schedules or situations, even a reluctance to try new foods or meet new people
  • Drug or alcohol use

Some of these signs are completely normal during times of stress and will go away or decrease after some time. But if a change in behavior persists for more than a few days, or appears to a greater degree than usual, that's an indicator someone may be struggling with their mental health and could use some support.

Maternal mental health matters

Postpartum depression is another mental health concern to watch for, and it might be more common than you think. According to the CDC, about one in eight women experience symptoms of postpartum depression, and the rate of diagnoses is increasing through the years. Postpartum depression symptoms can look like those of depression, but they might also include:

  • Crying frequently, more often than usual
  • Feeling anger
  • Withdrawing from family and friends
  • Feeling distant or “disconnected” from your baby
  • Experiencing excess worry or anxiety
  • Thinking of harming yourself or your baby
  • Doubting your ability to care for your baby

Someone struggling with their maternal mental health may start doubting themselves and feel that they are not a capable mother. In time, this may worsen. They may feel that the child is a burden on them, or they may lose their connection with their child. Having a new baby can be difficult, and mothers deserve support during and after birth.

It can be difficult to differentiate between feeling anxious you might be inadequate when raising your child versus becoming depressed. If you are experiencing postpartum depression symptoms, or you suspect a loved one is suffering, it might be time to reach out for help.

What to do if someone you know is struggling

It’s often easier to look at another person and see that there is something wrong. It's very hard for someone to look inward and identify the problem themselves. Broaching the conversation about mental health or asking questions about whether someone is considering self-harm can feel daunting.

Ideally, you have a relationship with the person where you're used to talking about emotions, feelings and mental health issues, such as depression and suicide.

Normalize seeking help and open conversations

In conversations about mental health, let’s work to normalize the idea of seeking help by mentioning times when talking to a friend or seeking therapy helped you deal with a difficult issue. It's much easier to open up to someone who they don't see as perfect or who has been open about what it was like to get help.

Parents, especially, express fears that talking to their children about suicide will plant the idea in their heads. But studies show that when parents talk openly and proactively about mental health and suicide, it actually helps protect kids. The same is true of drug use.

Getting comfortable with talking to a therapist or mental health professional about life goals and normal life stresses can make it easier to get help in times of crisis. Consider having mental health checkups. You can do this by talking to your primary care provider or going directly to a mental health professional who participates in your insurance. If you don't have insurance, most counties have community mental health centers that offer low-cost or free services.

Show your support

If you think someone you know may be struggling, the best thing to do is to try to connect with them and offer support. If someone has been spending a lot of time alone, ask them to go for a walk or to join you for coffee. If they're going through a stressful time, let them know they can talk to you. Or, you can offer to find a therapist for them or help them make an appointment with their doctor.

Across the nation, dialing or texting 988 will connect you to the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline, a network of over 200 crisis centers that are available 24/7. Trained counselors will listen, provide support and connect with resources as necessary.

Speaking up — and knowing the early signs of mental illness — can save and improve lives.

Find information about mental health resources offered by our network of hospitals at Parkridge Health.