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How To Identify The Early Signs Of Mental Health Issues

Learning how to identify the early signs of mental health issues can potentially decrease their severity. Formal treatment can help individuals manage these issues as they pursue a healthy future.

Mental health issues can encompass a wide range of conditions, including mood disorders and changes in thinking patterns and behavior. Some examples of mental illness include depression, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, eating disorders, and addictive behaviors.

Attempting to tell the difference between normal, expected behaviors and possible early signs of mental health problems are not always easy. There is usually no precise way to test if an individual is suffering from a problem related to their mental health.

Mental health issues and mental illnesses can make people miserable and cause problems in their daily lives. In most cases, signs of these issues are subtle, but can usually be managed with a combination of medication and therapies.

Major mental illnesses, like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, rarely happen all of a sudden. It is usually family, friends, teachers, or the individual themselves who will notice small, progressive changes in behaviors, feelings, or thoughts before the illness appears in full.

Learning about the early signs of mental health issues and early intervention can potentially decrease the severity of mental illness. In some cases, it may be possible to delay or prevent a major mental illness altogether.

Identifying Early Signs Of Mental Health Issues In Adults

The early signs and symptoms of mental health issues can vary, depending on the specific disorder, an individual’s circumstances, and other environmental factors. These issues will often affect an individual’s emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. While these indicators apply to adults, some may overlap with younger age groups, as well. Possible early signs in adults can include:

  • unexplainable feelings of sadness

  • confused thinking or reduced ability to concentrate

  • excessive fears, worries, or extreme feelings of guilt

  • extreme mood changes or dramatic highs and lows

  • withdrawal from friends and family

  • significant tiredness, low energy, or problems sleeping

  • delusions (detachment from reality), paranoia, or hallucinations

  • inability to cope with daily problems and stress

  • trouble understanding or relating to situations and others

  • alcohol and/or drug abuse

  • major changes in eating habits

  • sex drive changes

  • excessive anger, hostility, or violence

  • suicidal thoughts

Often, it’s not a single sign but a combination of signs that indicate mental health issues may be present. It is also possible for these signs to be expressed as physical symptoms. This can include stomach pain, back pain, headaches, as well as pain in other forms. Identifying Early Signs Of Mental Health Issues In Older Children And Teens It is very important to pay attention to sudden changes in thoughts and behaviors, especially in older children and teens. These sudden outbursts or behavioral inconsistencies may indicate a deeper problem. For teens and older children, possible early signs of mental health problems include:

  • confused thinking

  • prolonged depression (sadness or irritability)

  • feelings of extreme emotional highs and lows

  • social withdrawal

  • growing inability to cope with daily problems and activities

  • suicidal thoughts

  • numerous unexplained physical ailments

At times, adults can compare their teens’ behavior to that of their own when they were that age. This is not ideal, due to the changes in today’s social norms, as this process can cause parents to feel anxious and out of touch with their children. It should also be noted that the above symptoms should not be the result of any recent substance abuse or other medical conditions but expressed on their own to be considered possible indicators of mental health issues. However, a substance abuse issue may indicate underlying mental health problems.

Identifying Early Signs Of Mental Health Issues In Young Children

Mental health issues may also develop in young children. Children’s mental health symptoms tend to be more emotionally-based because they are still learning how to identify and talk about their feelings and emotions.

Early signs of childhood mental health problems may include:

  • Changes in mood: Look for feelings of sadness or withdrawal, lasting at least two weeks, or severe mood swings that cause problems in relationships at home or at school.

  • Intense feelings: Pay attention to feelings of overwhelming fear for no reason. This can sometimes be expressed as a racing heart or rapid breathing. The overwhelming sense of worry can become so severe that it interferes with the child’s daily activities.

  • Changes in behavior: These changes include drastic shifts in personality and out-of-control behaviors. Frequent fighting, using weapons and expressing a desire to hurt others are all possible warning signs of a deeper issue.

  • Difficulty concentrating: Be aware of the child’s ability to focus. If they are having trouble with attention span or sitting still they could be struggling with mental health problems.

  • Unexplained weight loss: A sudden decrease in appetite, frequent vomiting, or use of laxatives might be indicators of an eating disorder.

  • Physical symptoms: Children with mental health issues can develop headaches and stomach aches in association with the sadness or anxiety commonly seen in adults with similar problems.

  • Physical harm: In some cases, problems with mental health can lead children to injure themselves or cause self-harm. This could be seen in the form of cutting or burning, among other painful self-inflicted acts. These children may also develop suicidal thoughts or attempt suicide.

  • Substance abuse: Some kids and teens use drugs or alcohol to self-medicate or cope with the feelings they are not able to process on their own. These disorders tend to make the other worse. So, if someone is suffering from a mental health disorder, and they start abusing substances, their problem may worsen, along with their substance abuse.

If a child has only expressed one of the above signs, it is less likely that they are struggling with mental health-related problems, compared to children who have expressed three or more of the above signs.

Mental Health Issues That Affect Adults, Teens, And Children

Children and teens can develop the same mental health issues or conditions as adults, but they may express them a bit differently. Children, teens, and adults can experience a wide range of these illnesses, including:

Anxiety Disorders

Children who have anxiety disorders, like obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, social phobia, and generalized anxiety disorder, experience anxiety as a persistent problem that continually interferes with their daily activities.

It is normal for children to express some worry, especially during developmental stages and big life changes. However, when worry and stress become excessive and make it difficult for a child to function normally, an anxiety disorder may be present.

Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

This mental health condition typically includes symptoms relating to concentration, hyperactivity, and impulsive behavior. Some children with ADHD express symptoms from all three categories, while others may only express symptoms from one.

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

ASD is a serious developmental disorder that appears in early childhood, typically before age three. Although individual symptoms and severity may vary from case to case, ASD always affects a child’s ability to communicate and interact with others.

Eating Disorders

Eating disorders, including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder, are all serious and potentially life-threatening conditions. Children may become so consumed by thoughts of food and weight that they are unable to focus on anything else.

Mood Disorders

Mood disorders, such as depression and bipolar disorder, can cause a child to feel constant feelings of sadness or extreme mood swings. These emotional fluctuations are much more severe than what is usually expressed by children.


Schizophrenia is a chronic mental illness that can cause individuals to lose touch with reality. It most often appears in the late teens and early 20s, according to The Mayo Clinic.

When To Seek Help For Mental Health Issues

Mental health problems can develop into mental illnesses when ongoing symptoms cause frequent stress and affect someone’s ability to function. Reaching out for help is important, especially if questions about mental health arise.

Disorders that affect the mind are a widespread and common problem; an estimated 54 million Americans suffer from some form of mental disorder in a given year. Generally, it is up to the parents to identify these warning signs in their children.

Even after learning the early signs of mental health issues, it can be difficult to distinguish between signs of a problem and normal behaviors. Concerns about the negative social stigma, use of certain medications, and the cost or challenges of entering treatment might also prevent individuals and parents from seeking help.

Causes And Risk Factors Of Mental Health Issues

There is still much to be discovered about the mental health field, however, most mental illnesses are thought to be caused by a variety of genetic and environmental factors, including:

Inherited Traits

Mental health issues are more common in people with blood relatives who also suffer from these types of disorders. Certain genetic tendencies may increase the risk of developing a mental health problem, and certain environmental situations may trigger the onset.

Environmental Exposures Before Birth

Exposure to environmental stressors, inflammatory conditions, toxins, alcohol, or drugs while in the womb have, in some cases, been linked to future mental health issues.

Brain Chemistry

Neurotransmitters are naturally occurring brain chemicals that carry signals to other parts of the brain and body. When the neural networks involving these chemicals are impaired, the overall function of nerve receptors changes, resulting in depression.

About one in five American adults suffers from mental illness in any given year, according to The Mayo Clinic. Certain risk factors may increase the possibility of developing mental health issues, including:

  • having a blood relative with a mental illness

  • experiencing stressors, such as financial problems, death of a loved one, or divorce

  • having an ongoing medical condition, such as diabetes

  • having brain damage, as a result of a serious injury (traumatic brain injury)

  • going through traumatic experiences, including military combat or being assaulted

  • use or abuse of alcohol or recreational drugs

  • growing up in an abusive or neglectful situation

  • having few healthy relationships with family or friends

  • having an existing mental illness

The effects of mental health issues can be temporary or last a long time. It is also possible to experience more than one mental health disorder concurrently. For example, someone can suffer from a substance use disorder and depression at the same time.

Mental Health Problems And Their Complications

Mental illness is a leading cause of disability. If left untreated, these illnesses can cause severe emotional, behavioral, and physical health problems. Complications can include:

  • unhappiness and decreased enjoyment in life

  • conflicts with family and friends

  • social isolation

  • problems with misusing alcohol or other drugs

  • the overall weakened immune system

  • heart disease and other medical conditions

There is no sure-fire way to prevent mental health issues. However, taking steps to control stress, increase resilience, and boost low self-esteem, can help keep negative mental health symptoms under control.

Be sure to pay attention to the warning signs. If symptoms worsen, work with a doctor or therapist to figure out what might be triggering these issues.

Coping With Mental Health-Related Problems

Outward signs of mental health issues are often behavioral. Individuals may appear extremely quiet or withdrawn. Or, they may randomly burst into tears, have excessive amounts of anxiety, or sudden outbursts of anger.

It is always best to be open-minded if a loved one is struggling with a mental health issue. They may be equally concerned and confused about their behavior and unsure of what to do. Discuss these behaviors with a healthcare professional and work with them to develop a plan to cope with these behaviors, should they return.

Spending time alone is very important. This can help put things back into perspective and, potentially increase the amount of patience and compassion available for coping with or helping a loved one who is struggling with their mental health.

There is hope for recovery, and with proper treatment, many people with mental health problems can return to a meaningful and fulfilling life.

Treating Mental Health Issues

Every individual’s situation must be carefully assessed for individualized treatment. Comprehensive treatment to prevent early symptoms from progressing into a serious mental illness can include ongoing individual counseling, educational support, and medication, when necessary.

Learning about mental health can help individuals and families understand the significance of symptoms, how an illness might develop, and what to do to help.

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