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How to Tell If a Family Member Is Battling Mental Illness

You probably know when a family member is physically sick. They may have a bad cough, look drawn and tired or have lost weight. But would you know if their illness was mental, not physical?

Mental illness is common, affecting one in five adults. The signs of mental illness can start early: 50 percent of mental illness begins by age 14, with 75 percent beginning by age 24. Some of these changes may be subtle, and you may notice a change in a family member before someone else does. By understanding the signs of mental illness, you may be able to help your family member get the early treatment that is so important in managing mental health issues.

Mental illness is common, affecting one in five adults.


What Is Mental Illness?

Young girl helping her friend who is struggling with mental illness.

Mental illness includes a variety of health conditions that can affect a person’s behavior, emotions and thinking. These illnesses may include depression, anxiety, mood disorder or substance abuse. Some of the most common signs of mental illness include:

  • Withdrawal or drop in functioning — Your family member suddenly stops doing activities they used to regularly participate in, such as being on a team, spending time with friends or going r to class, with no apparent reason for the change.
  • Problems thinking — A person has difficulty concentrating, remembering things or maintaining logical thought. Perhaps the family member makes  speeches that are incoherent or difficult to explain.
  • Nervousness or anxiety — Your family member feels severe anxiety about commonplace issues or worries about unlikely scenarios.
  • Mood swings — From extreme highs to extreme lows. During the highs, or mania, the person may have rushed speech, sleeplessness, inability to sit still and impulsive or risk-taking behaviors. During lows, your family member may feel sad, irritable or hopeless.
  • Depression — Symptoms including sadness, anger, sleep disturbances, reduced appetite, unexplained physical problems and tiredness may be signs of depression.

Symptoms of mental illness may overlap, but having one of the signs does not absolutely mean your family member has a mental health issue. However, if a person you care about is struggling over a period of time with one or more symptoms, it is good to encourage them to see their doctor to discuss how they feel.

Physical illnesses are often caused by infections or disease. When we get sick, we look for treatments that will ease our symptoms, address the illness and help our bodies recover. Mental illnesses may be caused by traits we’ve inherited genetically, environmental exposures or brain chemistry. Similar to serious physical illnesses, the earlier we recognize the symptoms, the sooner the treatment can start that may reduce the severity or shorten the length of the illness. Treatments for mental illness include medicines, behavior therapy and psychotherapy.

If you have a family member who suddenly begins to act differently with no apparent cause, consider these signs of mental illness and encourage them to seek medical help.

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