Recognizing the Signs of Mental Illness in Adult Friends or Family

Oh it’s just a quirk you think.  “Ed just likes everything neat and clean, he’s just Type A” you tell yourself, or other family members, to brush off a truth that could be painful to grasp – Ed may have an emotional or mental issue that could benefit from professional help.

This is a more common reality than many of us realize. According to NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, approximately 1 in 5 adults in the U.S., that’s 43.7 million, or 18.6%, experience a mental health condition in a year.  And 1 in 20 lives with a serious mental illness such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. That means most likely all of us at some time has known or been close to someone experiencing mental illness.  But did we know?  And if we did know, what did we do?  Unfortunately, the answer is commonly nothing.  Although our cultural awareness has improved and mental health education is becoming more widespread, a stigma still exists on mental health.  And that stigma prevents us from acknowledging, questioning or reaching out for help when a friend or loved one may need it most.

The natural question is, why?  Why do we look the other way or enable circumstances to continue unchanged? It’s actually a simple answer that manifests with complex behaviors – Denial. A natural defense mechanism, denial protects the ego from stressful situations or circumstances that it can’t cope with.  According to the Mayo Clinic in some cases initial short-term denial can be a good thing, giving you time to adjust to a painful or stressful issue.  But allowing denial to continue for too long can prevent you from dealing with issues and ultimately cause more harm as a situation worsens.

So what’s the natural remedy to denial? Education. Understanding your own denial process and triggers can certainly help.  But educating yourself on the basic warning signs of mental illness will help you understand the next steps necessary to address the situation, which may not be as scary as you think.

These are basic warning signs to a possible mental or emotional disorder to watch for, according to the American Psychiatric Association:

  • Recent social withdrawal and loss of interest in others.
  • An unusual drop in functioning, especially at work, hobbies or social activities, or difficulty performing familiar tasks.
  • Problems with concentration, memory, or logical thought and speech that are hard to explain.
  • Heightened sensitivity to sights, sounds, smells or touch; avoidance of over-stimulating situations.
  • Loss of initiative or desire to participate in any activity; apathy.
  • Unusual or exaggerated beliefs about personal powers, illogical or “magical” thinking typical of childhood in an adult.
  • Unwarranted fear or suspiciousness of others or a strong nervous feeling.
  • Dramatic sleep and appetite changes or deterioration in personal hygiene.
  • Rapid or dramatic shifts in feelings or “mood swings” that interfere with daily life, functioning and relationships.

We all have bad days, weeks, experience “ruts” or periods of grief as part of a normal and healthy life.  A person who is periodically moody or occasionally socially withdrawn isn’t necessarily showing signs of a mental illness.  But when several of these behaviors are happening together to such a degree that they are disrupting daily life, their ability to work, care for themselves and their responsibilities, or relate to family and friends for an extended period of time – they should be seen by a mental health professional.

For more information or to find resources that can help visit: