How To Identify The Early Signs Of Mental Health Disorders

Updated on September 7, 2021

Determining the early signs of mental health problems unique to adults and teens is important in protecting our own mental wellbeing and that of our loved ones. Signs include prolonged sadness, anxiety, social withdrawal, and changes in behavior.

Identifying Early Signs Of Mental Health Issues

According to findings from a group of psychiatrists, about half of all lifetime mental disorders begin by a person’s mid-teens and three-fourths start ​​by their mid-20s.

The problem is, many people don’t get the help they need early enough. Instead, they often wait until much later in life to identify issues they’d been dealing with for many years.

Knowing how to spot the early signs of mental health issues and illnesses can equip you and your loved ones to address problems earlier.

There are many signs to look out for, coping strategies you can equip yourself with, and action you can take to improve your mental wellbeing.

Assessing The Signs Of Mental Health Problems

Mental health is individualized and complex. No two people share the exact same genetic, environmental, and mental makeup, so mental health problems will look different for everyone.

Though the signs may vary from person to person based on different factors and the type of mental illness, there are categories that most individuals will show changes in.

In general, you can expect to see warning signs in three facets:

  • physical signs
  • behavioral signs
  • mental and emotional signs

Adult Signs Of Mental Health Problems

Family problems, issues at work, stress within marriage and relationships, financial burdens, and much more can contribute to the mental health problems adults face.

If you or someone you love have been showing changes in your thoughts, feelings, or actions, use these warning signs as a guide to determine the next steps and if it’s time to seek support.

Physical Signs Of Mental Health Problems In Adults

Physical signs an adult may be experiencing mental health issues or changes include:

  • changes in sleep
  • changes in appetite
  • lack of personal hygiene (i.e. skipping out on showers, brushing teeth, or brushing hair)
  • increased sensitivity to lights, sounds, commotion, or being around people
  • scars or marks indicating self-harm
  • hair loss
  • weight changes
  • fatigue
  • nausea
  • increased heart rate
  • slowed speech, or hyperactive speech

Some of the physical symptoms listed above and more can be psychosomatic symptoms, which are physical symptoms that manifest as a result of emotional or mental distress.

For example, if you’re dealing with depression or anxiety, you might feel aches and pains, get high blood pressure, vomit, get headaches, and a range of other physical symptoms.

Behavioral Signs Of Mental Health Problems In Adults

The next change you may notice in adults is behavioral shifts. This can include anything from work performance to self-isolation and varies depending on the person.

Behavioral changes that may indicate mental health problems include:

  • loss of interest in activities a person once enjoyed
  • avoiding social gatherings, withdrawing
  • abusing substances (i.e. drinking or using drugs much more frequently than usual)
  • inability to stop using substances
  • missing work
  • forgetting major projects and responsibilities
  • missing important events, such as a friend’s birthday party or child’s graduation
  • being more or less talkative than usual
  • taking more risks
  • impulsive behavior
  • lying or stealing
  • deflecting
  • aggression, agitation, irritability, or defensiveness
  • violence
  • change in physical activity
  • difficulty paying attention
  • difficulty empathizing or relating with others
  • changes in sex drive
  • loss of motivation or zeal for life
  • developing nervous tics
  • difficulty completing normal tasks
  • escaping (i.e. with substances, tv, going to bars and clubs, etc.)
  • making inappropriate comments
  • compulsive, repetitive behavior
  • any other major change in behavior that’s out of the norm

Mental And Emotional Signs Of Mental Health Problems In Adults

Lastly, you may see changes in an adult’s mental and emotional state.

Mental and emotional signs of a disorder may include:

  • prolonged sadness
  • feeling anxious or worried all the time
  • intense mood swings
  • guilt
  • feeling worthless, low-self esteem
  • low self-efficacy
  • suicidal thoughts or actions
  • making a plan to harm oneself or others
  • memory loss
  • blocking out memories
  • feeling disconnected
  • nervousness
  • paranoia
  • being detached from reality
  • dwelling on negative thoughts and emotions
  • thinking about death and dying

Adult Attitudes Toward Mental Health

On a positive note, many adults have come to agree that being open about mental health problems is a good thing.

According to the American Psychological Association:

  • 87% of adults believe that having a mental health disorder is nothing to be ashamed of
  • 86% of adults believe their mental health will improve
  • 84% of adults believe that someone with a mental health disorder can live a normal life

A combination of mental health awareness and boosted societal views of mental health can significantly decrease the stigma that sometimes keeps people from getting help and talking about their issues.

Teen Signs Of Mental Health Problems

Keep in mind that teens and older children may share some of the same warning signs as adults — there is no hard and fast rule when it comes to your mental health.

However, this age group tends to show unique signs and symptoms that you can be on the lookout for.

Learn about the signs of mental health issues in children and teens

Physical Signs Of Mental Health Problems In Teens

If your teen is showing changes in their physical appearance and health, it may be time to reach out for support and take a deeper look at what might be going on.

A few of the physical signs of mental health problems a teen might show are:

  • decreased personal hygiene
  • marks and scars that indicate self-harm
  • binge eating, purging, or starving oneself
  • major weight changes
  • psychosomatic symptoms, such as nausea, difficulty breathing, or stomach aches
  • loss of sleep, insomnia
  • oversleeping
  • fatigue
  • lethargy

Behavioral Signs Of Mental Health Problems In Teens

Teens often show changes in their behavior when they’re going through mental health problems.

This might mean extreme apathetic or hyperactive behavior. Note changes that are significantly atypical for your teenager.

Behavioral indications of mental health issues include:

  • pulling out hair
  • skipping school
  • staying in bed all day
  • pretending to be sick to get out of leaving the house
  • staying home when the family is going out together
  • over-concerned with image and appearance
  • wearing long-sleeved clothing, even when it’s warm outside
  • dressing differently
  • missing meetings or practices for clubs, sports, or other after-school programs
  • loss of interest in hobbies they typically enjoy
  • talking back more than usual
  • fighting with parents and siblings
  • aggressive, irritable, or violent behavior
  • frustration and anger
  • emotional outbursts
  • committing minor crimes
  • confrontations with superiors at school
  • ignoring homework or household chores
  • difficulty concentrating on homework
  • decline in academic performance
  • experimenting with drugs or alcohol
  • a change in friend group
  • difficulty making friends
  • avoiding social gatherings, self-isolating
  • sneaking out of the house
  • increased sexual activity
  • keeping secrets

Mental And Emotional Signs Of Mental Health Problems In Teens

A teenager might also exhibit a decline in mental and emotional wellbeing.

Some of the mental and emotional signs include:

  • anxiety and worry over school, family problems, friendships, etc.
  • suicidal tendencies
  • guilt or shame
  • feeling restless or on edge most of the day
  • feeling stressed around new people
  • constant fear of judgment by peers
  • feeling hopeless, sad, and empty
  • excessive crying
  • being pessimistic
  • feeling like they don’t fit in with their peers
  • low self-esteem
  • low self-efficacy

Common Mental Illnesses Among Adults

For adults, mental illness is often tied to stress, which may stem from a wide range of risks and environmental influences.

The most common mental illnesses among adults are:

  • anxiety: Anxiety is the leading mental illness among adults, affecting 18.1% of U.S. adults every year (totaling more than 40 million adults).
  • depression: The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) found that 7.1% of U.S. adults (17.3 million) have had at least one major depressive episode.
  • post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): About 3.6% of U.S. adults have PTSD, a number that’s higher for females (5.2%) than for males (1.8%).
  • bipolar disorder: In the U.S., roughly 2.8% adults (which is about 7 million people) have bipolar disorder.

Common Mental Illness Among Teenagers

Teenagers go through several life changes, milestones in their emotions and bodies, shifting friend groups, and other challenges that are unique to adolescence.

Due at least in part to the unique circumstances teens experience, there are a few common mental illnesses clinicians identify in that age group.

The most common mental disorders seen in teens are:

  • eating disorders: Of the more than 30 million Americans with an eating disorder, 95% of those people are between the ages of 12 and 25.
  • depression: About 9.2% of youth (that’s over 2.2 million teens) have severe major depression.
  • anxiety: COVID-19 greatly impacted teen anxiety issues, and 31.9% of adolescents live with anxiety.
  • suicide and self-harm: Difficulty coping with school, mental health, and other factors have contributed to the 47.1% increase in suicide deaths for adolescents aged 10 to 24.

Not only do teenagers in the U.S. experience suicide at a high rate, but ethnic suicide deaths also occur at disproportionate rates to the general U.S. population.

What Causes Mental Health Problems?

Any number of factors might cause mental health concerns in both teens and adults. Everyone responds to negative and positive life events differently, and for some, coping is a difficult task.

A few factors that might cause mental health problems include:

  • stress
  • trauma
  • abuse
  • inability to cope with change
  • dealing with physical health conditions
  • finances
  • substance abuse
  • poor working conditions
  • environmental influences
  • a difficult or tense home life
  • genetics
  • trouble at school, work, or other places
  • poor nutrition and exercise
  • lack of community or family support, feeling alone
  • chemical imbalances
  • standards of living

Tips On Coping With A Mental Health Problem

If you can relate with any of the factors mentioned above, or recognize signs in someone you love, there are ways to cope with mental health problems.

Whether you’re the one using these tips or sharing them with someone you love, personalize these ideas to fit your mental health needs and goals.

You might try:

  • reaching out to a loved one for support
  • getting started with a counselor to work through deeper emotions or trauma
  • getting proper nutrition and regular exercise (just a few minutes of walking every day can greatly improve your emotional wellbeing)
  • taking a step back from social media, substances, or anything else that might be hurting your mental health
  • incorporating self-care practices into your day (i.e. reading, taking a relaxing bath, spending time with people, or meditating)
  • journaling to express both negative and positive emotions

Know When It’s Time To Get Help For Your Mental Wellbeing

If you feel like you’re at a point where you need extra support, it’s time to reach out for help.

Making the first step of reaching out is often the hardest part. If you can overcome that, just take it one step at a time from there.

Don’t go through this alone. There are resources you can lean on, counselors and therapists who can offer clinical support, and friends and family who care for you.

Note: If you or someone you love are expressing suicidal thoughts, motives, or actions, get immediate help. Call 911 right away and get professional help involved.

Mental Health Resources

You’re never alone in dealing with your mental health or finding help for a loved one. To help you get started, look through a few of the resources below.

Helplines, treatment, and other resources for mental health: