Updated June, 2021.
If you work in a community-serving role, you've probably faced situations where you suspected someone was suffering from poor mental health—but you weren't sure what questions to ask or how to intervene.
What signals should you be looking for? When do you take action? What are some clear, universal signs that someone is at-risk and needs support?
These questions are particularly salient for people who work with youth and young adults.
According to the American Psychiatric Association, 50% of mental illness begins by age 14—and 75% begins by age 24.
The earlier we notice the problem, the faster we can intervene.
Early intervention can help reduce the severity of a mental illness, and in some cases, delay or prevent its development altogether. Mental health training and awareness are key.
Obviously, a complete mental health assessment is required to make an accurate diagnosis and treatment plan.
But as a first step, community-serving professionals can be on alert for symptoms, encourage open discussions, and identify where an assessment and further support may be needed.
These are 5 of the most common signs of poor mental health. One symptom alone may not indicate a serious problem, but combined, they signal a clear call for help.
1. Drop in functioning at school or work
Serious drops in performance at work or school are a typical sign of struggle. Has the person stopped caring about their professional or academic goals? Simply stopped showing up for class or work?
A few missed days aren't necessarily cause for concern—but when this behavior becomes a pattern, it signals a deeper issue.
For example, when someone is suffering from depression and anxiety, everyday tasks feel insurmountable. Avoidance seems like the only option, as feelings of lethargy or panic take over, and it becomes impossible to face obligations at home, work, or school.
The situation quickly snowballs, as missed deadlines and incomplete tasks make facing the day even more stressful.
2. Withdrawal from social activities
Disconnecting from others, and retreating into isolation is often associated with poor mental health. In fact, lack of social contact can be both a symptom and trigger of mental illness.
Studies have shown that long term social withdrawal is an excellent predictor for depression.
Isolation is also associated with anxiety and addiction. For example, sufferers may fear "making a mistake" in group interactions, or consider themselves unworthy of friendship and human connection.
Or, a socially disconnected person may use drugs, gambling, and other addictive behaviors to fill the void left by loneliness.
Meaningful, supportive human contact is key for good mental health—particularly when we're going through stressful times.
Withdrawing from social activities can set in motion a spiral of negative thoughts and feelings, opening the door to more serious mental health challenges.
3. Uncharacteristic changes in mood and habits
Recurring, uncharacteristic changes in mood and habits are commonly considered indicators of declining mental health.
For example, bi-polar disorder is characterized by extreme ups and downs—euphoria, optimism, and an abundance of energy, alternating with lethargy, sadness, and social withdrawal.
Major depression is associated with irritability, sadness, changes in eating and sleeping habits, or a kind of emotional numbness that suggests a growing disconnect from the outside world.
These are not passing states, or "bad days". When mood and personality change significantly, and the individual can't control those shifts, it is a clear indication they are at-risk for (or suffering from) mental illness.
4. Reckless, risk-taking behaviors
Is someone who typically makes good decisions suddenly engaging in high-risk behaviors?
For example, a conscientious teen who suddenly begins shoplifting, taking drugs, driving drunk, or participating in other activities that put his/her life (and the lives of others) at risk.
Lack of regard for personal safety, future goals, or the wellbeing of others is a typical sign of degrading mental health. It signals impaired judgement, loss of control, and opens the door to addiction.
If someone you know has stopped caring about consequences, and seems stuck in a cycle of destructive behaviors, they are not simply "irresponsible". They are likely suffering from poor mental health.
5. Substance abuse
In many cases, substance abuse and other forms of mental illness go hand-in-hand.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, in 2014, 7.9 million adult Americans had both a substance use disorder and another mental illness (known as comorbidity or a concurrent disorder).
People suffering from depression and anxiety often self-medicate with alcohol and drugs. However, reliance on substances typically worsens feelings of worthlessness and stress, initiating a cycle of abuse and deteriorating mental health.
There is a clear correlation between substance abuse and mental illness, but it can be quite challenging to treat.
If you notice someone has begun relying on substances, early intervention and a thorough mental health assessment can help address the problem, before it escalates into a serious concurrent disorder.
Learn more about mental health and addiction
Are you interested in learning more about mental health disorders, assessment, and treatment?
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This training is ideal for anyone who works in a community-serving role, including health care, education, law enforcement, and social services.
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