Connecting People to Services

Mental Health Concerns

Mental Health is a state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.

Researchers suggest that there are indicators of mental health in the following major areas.

  • Emotional well-being

– such as perceived life satisfaction, happiness, cheerfulness peacefulness.

  • Psychological well-being

– such as self-acceptance, personal growth, optimism, hopefulness, purpose in life, control of one’s environment, spirituality, self-direction, and positive relationships.

  • Social well-being

– social acceptance, beliefs in the potential of people and society as a whole, personal self worth and usefulness in society, sense of community.

Fluctuations in our mental health are a normal part of living as we face different circumstances and stresses in our day to day lives. In fact, it is estimated that only about 17% of U.S. adults are considered to be in a state of optimal mental health. Most of these fluctuations, however, do not significantly alter how we function day to day, and therefore do not progress to a diagnosable mental illness.

Nevertheless, it is important to pay attention to your individual well-being and recognize warning signs in yourself or others to intervene early when problems begin to impact how you are functioning in your life.

Recognizing Early Warning Signs of Mental Illnesses

Major mental illnesses such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder 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 full-blown form.

Being informed about developing symptoms, or early warning signs, can lead to intervention that can help reduce the severity of an illness.  It may even be possible to delay or prevent a major mental illness altogether.

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
  • Usual 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”

One or two of these symptoms can’t predict a mental illness.  But a person experiencing several together that are causing serious problems in his or her ability to study, work, or relate to others should be seen by a mental health professional.  Guidance counselors, teachers or classmates are often the first to notice symptoms.

Suicidal thoughts or attempts and bizarrely violent or homicidal thoughts require immediate attention.

Untreated, these early symptoms may progress to a psychotic episode.  That is, the individual may develop irrational beliefs (delusions), serious disturbances in perception (hallucinations), and disordered thought and speech, or become otherwise out of touch with reality.  A psychotic episode can develop very gradually and may go untreated for extended periods of time.

Shame, fear, denial, and other factors often prevent individuals or their families from seeking help, even though the emergence of these symptoms as early as the teenage years is not caused by bad parenting.  But help is available and treatments for major mental illnesses are more effective than every before.


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
  • be monitored closely for conditions requiring more intensive care

Family members are valued partners and should be involved in treatment whenever possible.  Ongoing family involvement may be essential when a person has not yet accepted the need for treatment.

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 plan 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.

©Copyright 2009 American Psychiatric Association, “Let’s Talk Facts About Warning Signs of Major Mental Illnesses, Healthy Minds. Healthy Lives.”