Early Warning Signs of Mental Illness

Major mental illnesses such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder rarely appear “out of the blue.” Most often family, friends, teachers or individuals themselves begin to recognize small changes or a feeling that “something is not quite right” about their thinking, feelings or behavior before one of these illnesses appears in its full-blown form.

Learning about developing symptoms, or early warning signs, and taking action can help. Early intervention can help reduce the severity of an illness. It may even be possible to delay or prevent a major mental illness altogether.

Signs and Symptoms

If several of the following are occurring, it may useful to follow up with a mental health professional.

  • Withdrawal — Recent social withdrawal and loss of interest in others
  • Drop in functioning — An unusual drop in functioning, at school, work or social activities, such as quitting sports, failing in school or difficulty performing familiar tasks
  • Problems thinking — Problems with concentration, memory or logical thought and speech that are hard to explain
  • Increased sensitivity — Heightened sensitivity to sights, sounds, smells or touch; avoidance of over-stimulating situations
  • Apathy — Loss of initiative or desire to participate in any activity
  • Feeling disconnected — A vague feeling of being disconnected from oneself or one’s surroundings; a sense of unreality
  • Illogical thinking — Unusual or exaggerated beliefs about personal powers to understand meanings or influence events; illogical or “magical” thinking typical of childhood in an adult
  • Nervousness — Fear or suspiciousness of others or a strong nervous feeling
  • Unusual behavior – Odd, uncharacteristic, peculiar behavior
  • Sleep or appetite changes — Dramatic sleep and appetite changes or decline in personal care
  • Mood changes — Rapid or dramatic shifts in feelings

One or two of these symptoms alone can’t predict a mental illness. But if a person is experiencing several at one time and the symptoms are causing serious problems in the ability to study, work or relate to others, he/she should be seen by a mental health professional. People with suicidal thoughts or intent, or thoughts of harming others, need immediate attention.