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Warning Signs

Recognizing the Warning Signs of Mental Illness


Most people believe that mental disorders are rare and "happen to someone else." In fact, mental disorders are common and widespread. They can strike anyone at any time. An estimated 51 million Americans suffer from some form of mental disorder in a given year. Sharing a home with someone who has a mental illness may be difficult and stressful. Most families are not prepared to cope with this situation. It can be physically and emotionally trying, and can make us feel vulnerable to the opinions and judgments of others. If you think you or someone you know may have a mental or emotional problem, it is important to keep in mind the following:

  • Mental illnesses are real, recognizable and treatable.
  • Early treatment may reduce the effects of a mental illness.
  • There is hope.
  • Help is available.

What is Mental Illness?

A mental illness is a disease that causes mild to severe disturbances in thought and/or behavior, resulting in an inability to cope with life's ordinary demands and routines.

There are more than 200 classified forms of mental illness. Some of the more common disorders are depression, bipolar disorder, dementia, schizophrenia and anxiety disorders. Symptoms may include changes in mood, personality, personal habits and/or social withdrawal.

Mental health problems may be related to excessive stress due to a particular situation or series of events. As with cancer, diabetes and heart disease, mental illnesses are often physical as well as emotional and psychological. Mental illnesses may be caused by a reaction to environmental stresses, genetic factors, biochemical imbalances, or a combination of these. With proper care and treatment many individuals learn to cope or recover from a mental illness or emotional disorder.

Warning Signs of Mental Illness in Adults Include:

  • confused thinking
  • prolonged depression (sadness or irritability)
  • feelings of extreme highs and lows
  • excessive fears, worries and anxieties
  • social withdrawal
  • dramatic changes in eating or sleeping habits
  • strong feelings of anger
  • delusions or hallucinations
  • growing inability to cope with daily problems and activities
  • suicidal thoughts
  • denial of obvious problems
  • numerous unexplained physical ailments
  • substance abuse

Warning Signs of Mental Illness in Younger Children:

  • changes in school performance
  • poor grades despite strong efforts
  • excessive worry or anxiety (i.e. refusing to go to bed or school)
  • hyperactivity
  • persistent nightmares
  • persistent disobedience or aggression
  • frequent temper tantrums

Warning Signs of Mental Illness in Older Children and Pre-Adolescents

  • substance abuse
  • inability to cope with problems and daily activities
  • change in sleeping and/or eating habits
  • excessive complaints of physical ailments
  • defiance of authority, truancy, theft, and/or vandalism
  • intense fear of weight gain
  • prolonged negative mood, often accompanied by poor appetite or thoughts of death
  • frequent outbursts of anger

Despite the different symptoms and types of mental illnesses, many families share similar experiences.

Do You Find Yourself:

  • Denying the warning signs? Substance abuse, "growing pains" or menopause, for example, may mask signs of mental illness. Individuals abusing drugs may be seeking ways to cope with their mental illness. Repeated visits to a doctor with complaints of flu-like symptoms, back pain, or colds may also be symptomatic of an underlying mental illness.
  • Worrying about what other people will think? Often the warning signs of mental illnesses are ignored because of the stigma that persists. Some people may face ridicule or hostility from friends and neighbors. The insensitivity of others may add to feelings of loneliness and isolation and may stop a family from seeking help.
  • Wondering who's to blame? Often, knowing what causes an illness helps people to accept the situation and move on to seeking treatment. With some mental illnesses, there are no immediate answers or obvious reasons why someone became ill.

Today, research tells us that many mental illnesses are caused by a variety of reasons. Find out all you can about your loved one's illness by reading and talking with mental health professionals.

How to Cope Day-to-Day

Handling unusual behavior

The outward signs of a mental illness are often behavioral. Individuals may be extremely quiet or withdrawn. Conversely, he or she may burst into tears or have outbursts of anger. Even after treatment has started, individuals with a mental illness can exhibit anti-social behaviors. When in public, these behaviors can be embarrassing and difficult to accept. Try to be patient and remember that the person probably cannot control his or her actions. Calmly try and move to a private location until the episode is over. The next time you and your family member visit your doctor, discuss these behaviors and develop a strategy for coping.

Establishing a support network

If you feel you cannot discuss your situation with friends or other family members, find a self-0help or support group. These groups provide an opportunity for you to talk to other people who are experiencing the same type of problems. They can listen and offer valuable advice.

Seeking counseling

It is likely that the family member with the mental illness is seeing a therapist or counselor. Therapy can also be beneficial for family members. The therapist can suggest ways to cope and better understand your loved one's illness. When looking for a therapist, be patient and talk to a few therapists so you can choose the person that is right for you and your family. It may take time until you are comfortable with the therapist, but in the long run you will be glad you sought help.

Taking time out

It is common for the person with the mental illness to become the focus of family life. When this happens, other members of the family may feel ignored, annoyed and resentful. Some may find it difficult to pursue their own interests.

If you are the caretaker, you may need some time to rest. Schedule time away before you become frustrated or angry. If you schedule time for yourself it will help you to keep things in perspective and you may have more patience and compassion for coping or helping your loved one.

You have feelings too

Remember, the burden of caring for a person 24-hours a day can be exhausting and unpredictable, even frightening. Take time for yourself, seek respite care'and the support and help of family and friends. Only when you are physically and emotionally healthy can you help others. It is not always possible to be patient and giving all the time. There are times when you may be tired, angry, or resentful. Accept these feelings and go easy on yourself.

Inpatient care

There are many reasons why it may be necessary to hospitalize the family member with a mental illness. Medications may need to be adjusted under close supervision, or a different course of treatment may be necessary. At these times it is not only the individual with the illness who must make changes, but also the family. Take time to re-focus, develop a new routine and plan for your loved one's return.

Don't give up too soon

Recovery from a mental illness takes time, months or even years. Don't be discouraged by temporary setbacks, and try not to blame yourself when things go wrong.

Mental Illness in the Family: Part 1 Recognizing the Warning Signs & How to Cope is one in a series of pamphlets on helping family members with mental illness. NMHA offers additional pamphlets on a variety of mental health topics. For more information or to order multiple copies of pamphlets, please call 1-800-969-NMHA. This pamphlet is copyrighted. Permission to reprint must be obtained from the NMHA.

For more information contact your local Mental Health Association, community mental health center, or:

National Mental Health Association
2001 N. Beauregard Street, 12th Floor
Alexandria, VA 22311
Phone 703/684-7722
Fax 703/684-5968
Mental Health Resource Center 800/969-NMHA
TTY Line 800/433-5959

Center for Mental Health Services (CMHS)
Knowledge Exchange Network
5600 Fishers Lane, Room 13-103
Rockville, MD 20857
Phone 800-789-2647

American Psychological Association
750 First Street, NE
Washington, DC 20002
Phone 800-374-2721 or 202-336-5500

National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI)
200 N Glebe Road, Ste. 1015
Arlington, VA 22203-3457
Phone 800-950-6264 or 703-524-7600

American Psychiatric Association
1400 K Street, NW
Washington, DC 20005
Phone 888-357-7924

National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)
Information Resources and Inquiries Branch
5600 Fishers Lane, Room 7C-02
Rockville, MD 20857
Phone 301-443-4513

NMHA's Campaign for America's Mental Health works to raise awareness that mental illnesses are common, real and treatable illnesses and ensure that those most at-risk receive proper, timely and effective treatment.

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