Recognizing Early Warning Signs of Mental IllnessesMajor mental illnesses such as schizophrenia or bipolardisorder rarely appear “out of the blue.” Most often family, friends, teachers, or individuals themselves recognize that “something is not quite right” about their thinking, feelings, or behavior before one of these illnesses appears in its fullblown form.
What are the Signs and Symptoms to Be Concerned About?If several of the following are occurring, a serious condition may be developing.
- Recent social withdrawal and loss of interest in others.
- An unusual drop in functioning, especially at school or work, such as quitting sports, failing in school, 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.
- A vague feeling of being disconnected from oneself or one’s surroundings; a sense of unreality.
- Unusual or exaggerated beliefs about personal powers to understand meanings or influence events; illogical or “magical” thinking typical of childhood in an adult.
- Fear or suspiciousness of others or a strong nervous feeling.
- Uncharacteristic, peculiar behavior.
- Dramatic sleep and appetite changes or deterioration in personal hygiene.
- Rapid or dramatic shifts in feelings or “mood swings.”
Suicidal thoughts or attempts and bizarrely violent or homicidal thoughts require immediate attention.
When Should Treatment Begin?Over a decade of research at centers around the world has shown that early intervention can often prevent a first psychotic episode and a hospitalization. Even if a person does not yet show clear signs of a diagnosable mental illness, these “red flag” early warning symptoms can be frightening and disruptive.
At the very least, the affected person should:
have a diagnostic evaluation by a trained professional;
- be educated about mental illness and signs and symptoms to watch for;
- receive supportive counseling about daily life and strategies for stress management; and
- be monitored closely for conditions requiring more intensive care.
Each individual’s situation must be assessed carefully and treatment should be individualized. Medication may be useful in reducing some symptoms. Oftentimes, the best treatment involves both medication and some form of talk therapy.
Education about mental illness and what is happening in the brain can help individuals and families understand the significance of symptoms, how an illness might develop, and what can be done to help. For example, families can learn the harmful role that stress can play in accelerating symptoms, and ways to reduce it.
Ongoing individual and family counseling, vocational and educational support, participation in a multi-family problem-solving group, and medication when appropriate, can all be powerful elements of comprehensive treatment to prevent early symptoms from evolving into serious illness.
Just as with other medical illnesses, early intervention can make a crucial difference in preventing what could become a lifelong and potentially disabling psychiatric disorder.