Everyone goes through physical and emotional changes throughout life. Part of being human is dealing with the way our feelings about things change as we get older and go through different phases of life. However, for some people who have a predisposition for mental illness, emotional or mental life can change abruptly, with the onset of mental illness.

For an individual who seems to be struggling with mental or emotional changes, the person or their loved ones may question whether or not those changes may indicate the development of a mental illness. Nevertheless, it can be hard to know how to recognize that mental illness is present.

According to the National Institute on Mental Health, nearly one in five people in the US – about 18.1 percent of the population – experiences some sort of mental health issue.

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The steps that can be taken to recognize whether or not there is a metal health problem underlying an individual’s behaviors involve analyzing the following elements of the individual’s personality:

  1. Thinking processes
  2. Mood swings or major emotional shifts
  3. Behaviors, eating and sleeping patterns
  4. Delusions or hallucinations
  5. Social relations or withdrawal
  6. Daily activities or responsibilities
  7. Complaints about physical ailments
  8. Drug or alcohol use

How to Spot a Mental Illness

The following paragraphs explain each of these elements in further detail, and how they may indicate the presence of a mental illness or issue.

Step 1: Examine thinking processes.

Confusion manifests as difficulty in paying attention, a feeling of disorientation, or problems making decisions. It can also affect the ability to access short-term or long-term memory.

According to the National Library of Health’s Medline Plus encyclopedia, confusion can be a symptom of a number of illnesses, both physical and mental. However, confusion usually results from something that is interfering with the brain, including mental health issues.

If there is no known physical illness that may explain a sudden onset of confused thinking, it can be important to get the individual experiencing confusion to a medical professional, as this can indicate serious illness. Working with a doctor can help to uncover whether or not a mental illness is involved.

Step 2: Consider mood swings or major emotional shifts.

Everyone has mood swings – good days and bad days are part of work, school, and other experiences. Still, sudden changes in mood or extreme swings from one mood to another can indicate a more serious problem.

According to Mental Health America, up to 20 percent of people in the US report symptoms associated with depression in any given month. Bipolar disorder occurs in about 1 percent of the population. However, mood swings can also be indicative of other mental health issues, such as schizophrenia or psychosis, depending on other factors. If the mood swings are occurring on a regular basis, and fluctuating wildly, a mood disorder or other mental health problem may be to blame.

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Step 3: Assess behaviors and patterns of eating and sleeping.

Some changes in behavior are readily apparent. When a formerly quiet child begins to have angry outbursts on a regular basis, this can be an obvious cause for concern. However, many of the behavioral changes that occur with mental illness can be subtle, making it hard to tell if there’s really much difference.

Noticing whether or not there are changes in eating or sleeping patterns can help to identify more subtle behavior changes. For example, if a person who was formerly a good, healthy eater suddenly begins leaving meals uneaten, it could indicate the onset of a mental issue. The same can be true of changes in sleeping patterns, as explained in research from Nature and Science of Sleep, or of other behavioral disruptions, like a formerly gregarious child becoming suddenly somber and secretive. While this may simply be a phase the individual is going through, changes that are extreme or put the individual’s health at risk should be investigated.

Step 4: Determine if delusions or hallucinations are present.

A less subtle sign that someone is experiencing a mental health problem is hearing voices or seeing things that aren’t there. Hallucinations that begin occurring without an underlying physical cause may indicate a mental health problem. Delusions, such as the belief that one is being watched when this is not true, are also often indicators of a mental health problem.

Hallucinations do not always indicate a mental illness, as evidenced by an article from The Clinical Advisor. However, they and delusions are almost always an indication that there is something wrong with the individual’s health, whether mental or otherwise.

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Step 5: Consider social relations or withdrawal from friends.

When an individual is experiencing new or disturbing mental symptoms or emotions, the person may begin withdrawing from typical social interaction. Depending on the circumstance, the person may even begin hanging out with new friends who are very different. This may be particularly true if the individual is developing a substance use disorder, but it can occur for other mental health reasons as well, including for those who are dealing with eating disorders or conditions for which they find some kind of support in certain people.

Mental Health America explains that an individual with a personality disorder may withdraw from friends completely. This can also occur with those who are struggling with depression or anxiety of some form or other. Any unexplained changes in social circles or withdrawal from activities with friends may indicate a mental health issue.

Step 6: Examine daily activities or responsibilities.

People who develop mental illnesses may begin to have issues maintaining daily responsibilities that didn’t exist before. This may be severe enough to create a physical inability to perform certain activities, or they may be mild enough to simply cause the person to feel overwhelmed by simple tasks.

If a person is struggling to keep up with daily responsibilities, it is important to carefully observe their demeanor, as this alone may not indicate any issue. In fact, positive experiences, such as excitement about a new relationship or grief for loss of a loved one, may have a similar result. However, if the inability to keep up with daily tasks is chronic, it may indicate a deeper mental issue.

Step 7: Assess complaints about physical ailments.

According to Mayo Clinic, mental illness can often manifest symptoms of physical pain or ailment. A person who is dealing with mental health issues may experience unexplained pain or discomfort, such as:

  • Back or neck pain
  • Headache
  • Stomach pain or nausea
  • Muscular weakness
  • General malaise

In many cases, the source of these pains or other discomforts is not able to be determined. It is important to look into the potential for mental illness as a cause of unexplained physical ailments.

In addition, mental illness can result in true physical illness. According to research from World Psychiatry, people with severe mental illness have a higher prevalence of disease, from nutritional and metabolic disorders to viral and respiratory tract diseases, and a number of different problems in between. Professionals experienced in mental health can often identify these connections.

Step 8: Determine if drug or alcohol use is present.

A person who is experiencing disturbing mental health problems may turn to drugs or alcohol to self-medicate – that is, to help diminish the disturbing feelings that come from the disorder. For this reason, it is important for anyone who suspects a mental illness may be present to note whether or not there are signs of drug abuse or of abnormal, high levels of alcohol use.

Because substance abuse is a mental health disorder of its own, it is important to get help when these symptoms are noted. However, it is also important to identify whether or not the individual may be experiencing a co-occurring mental health disorder that has either accompanied or otherwise caused the substance abuse. This is because treating the underlying disorder may be necessary to curb the substance abuse.

The Necessity of Treatment

Any of the above behaviors or issues may indicate the presence of a mental health disorder. However, these issues may have other sources. Careful observation and analysis can help determine the difference. In particular, if more than one of the above issues is present, it may be more likely that a mental illness is the source of the issue.

Nevertheless, it is important to get professional assistance if a mental health problem is suspected. Psychiatric professionals should always be the first resource for anyone who suspects that a mental health issue is affecting them or a loved one.