According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one in four adults in America experiences a mental health disorder in a given year. That's nearly 60 million people suffering from illnesses like depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety and panic disorders, schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder and others. But while the numbers make mental illnesses seem prevalent and almost commonplace, other statistics tell a different story. According to NAMI:
- Fewer than one-third of adults and one-half of children with a diagnosable mental disorder receive mental health services in a given year.
- Suicide is the 11th leading cause of death in the Unites States and the third-leading cause of death for people ages 10-24.
- More than 90 percent of those who die by suicide have a diagnosable mental disorder.
- More than 50 percent of students with a mental disorder age 14 and older drop out of high school — the highest dropout rate of any disability group.
Perhaps one of the reasons that mental illness signs and symptoms aren't fully realized for what they are is that when they begin during adolescence, they can be seen as the kinds of hormonal mood swings teenagers are naturally prone to. Take these signs, for example:
- Dramatic sleep and appetite changes
- Rapid shifts in feelings or moods
- Sudden irritability or anger
- Defiance of authority or truancy
- Body image problems
- Identity confusion
- Issues with self-esteem
That's why being aware of the symptoms is so crucial for parents, families, teachers and others who work with teens and young adults. Oftentimes, the signs of mental illness go unnoticed or are explained away until the situation is dire, resulting in serious episodes like a nervous breakdown, a psychotic split or even a suicide attempt. With early diagnosis, however, years of pain and suffering can be avoided.
It's important to remember that mental illness is treatable. The earlier a person is diagnosed with a mental illness, the easier it is to get proper treatment and get back on the path to healthy living.
Watch for signs and symptoms
There are many different signs and symptoms of mental illness. While many are normal phases that teenagers typically go through, if several are occurring and their severity increases, it could be a sign of a serious condition. Here are some of the symptoms:
- 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.
- Loss of initiative or desire to participate in activities.
- Fear or suspiciousness of others or a strong nervous feeling.
- Dramatic sleep and appetite changes or deterioration in personal hygiene.
- Rapid or dramatic shifts in feelings or "mood swings."
- Prolonged periods of depression, sadness or irritability.
- Feelings of extreme highs and lows, including hyperactivity and aggression.
- Strong feelings of anger.
- Excessive fears, worries and anxieties.
- Growing inability to cope with daily problems and activities.
- Numerous unexplained physical ailments.
- Substance abuse.
- Frequent outbursts of anger.
- Intense fear of weight gain.
- Preoccupation with thoughts of death.
- Unexplained or persistent feelings of guilt or shame.
- Don't ask your loved one to snap out of it. Recovering from mental illness takes time and treatment.
- Listen. Don't dismiss his or her concerns and don't assume that you know what he or she is going through.
- Encourage your loved one to be more active. Most people who are depressed isolate themselves. Gently encourage your friend with depression to get out more.
- Don't push too hard. Be encouraging but not forceful. Don't make demands.
- Encourage your loved one to stick with treatment. You could also offer to go with your loved one to therapy or health care appointments.
- Create a stable environment. Reducing stress around the home can help a person battling a mental illness.
- Emphasize that your loved one will feel better. Mental illness distorts a person's perception of the world. But with time and treatment, your friend or loved one will see clearly again.
This list is not all-inclusive; there are other signs specific to age groups and illnesses. For more information, visit the websites for the following organizations:
Take the first steps toward treatment
If you suspect mental illness in a loved one, it's important to act. Taking a "wait and see" approach can have dire consequences, especially if the person exhibits suicidal or homicidal thoughts.
Do not be embarrassed to voice your concerns. Often, the signs are much harder to spot by the person who is experiencing them, so feedback from a loved one can be life-saving.
However, it can be difficult to raise the subject and even harder to help that person see the problem. They may become defensive or be in denial about a mental health issue, or even lash out in anger. Don't let this deter you from offering your support.
Approach the person when they're in a calm mood, if at all possible. Be sure to talk about the subject from a position of care and concern and leave all judgment at the door. Ask lots of questions and be patient and open-minded when listening to answers. Even though what you hear may alarm you, it's important to be supportive and not cast judgment. Let the person know that you love them no matter what they're going through, that you don't think they're a failure or beyond hope. Commit to helping them find their way back to a healthier life.
It's a great victory once a person struggling with mental illness agrees to get treatment, but it can be daunting knowing where to go for the right kind of help. You can start by visiting your family doctor for an evaluation and to get advice on what specific kind of help may be best, but the mainstays of treatment are a combination of counseling or therapy, medication and support groups.
For a detailed list of the kinds of mental health professionals and treatments available, visit Mental Health America.
Another hurdle to receiving treatment is the cost. Even if you are insured, some insurance companies have different policies and procedures for obtaining mental health care than physical health care. But there are a number of places to get treatment whether you're insured or not.
For more information, read the ksl.com article "Finding mental health services for the uninsured."
Outside of clinical help, a number of support programs are offered at no charge by groups like the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Visit NAMI's website for a list of programs.
Offer continued support
Fighting a mental illness is a continual uphill battle. There are good days ahead, but there are many more bad days that will make the person suffering from the illness want to give up. Feelings of being unworthy of happiness and undeserving of help combined with the emotions of guilt and sadness so prevalent in mental illness take their toll. They are in need of your support and care more than ever, and they need to know that support will be unwavering.
While treatment is best left to the professionals, there are many, many ways you can offer your support to a loved one who is suffering. Being a shoulder to cry on, offering to drive them to appointments, helping them manage day-to-day tasks and simply letting them know you're thinking about them can go a long way. Visit moodletter.com for a list of ways to help someone with a mental illness and ideas for supporting a spouse or partner.
Take care of yourself
Caregiver fatigue is a real problem among family members and friends helping a loved one battle mental illness. Being a listening ear and shouldering the burden of care can take its toll on even the most devoted caregiver. You may become overwhelmed, sad and even angry or resentful. Know that this is normal, that you're not a bad person for feeling this way and that you will need to find your own ways of coping with how your life has changed since mental illness became part of it.
Remember that even a caregiver needs their own care. Whether you seek professional help or simply take time out for yourself to relax and recharge, there are many things you can and should do when caring for a loved one with a mental illness. Visit healthyplace.com for more information on how to cope.
Don't ever give up
While it may seem the odds are against it, you must remember that mental illness is treatable. Many people with illnesses like depression, eating disorders, anxiety, bipolar disorder and others can have healthy and happy lives. The key is to find a solution that works for you and stick to it — no matter what. Some days will be harder than others, and it's likely that there will be relapses along the way. Just because one treatment didn't work for you, it doesn't mean there aren't other options — that just because you had another episode, it doesn't mean that you won't work your way out of it again. Be patient, forgiving and always willing to try again.
In the words of Mary Pickford: "If you have made mistakes, there is always another chance for you. You may have a fresh start any moment you choose, for this thing we call 'failure' is not the falling down, but the staying down."
Since suffering a depressive episode at age 13, Lindsay Maxfield has dedicated her life to finding happiness in spite of mental illness. She considers herself a "recovering bipolar" and truly lives each day with joy as a wife, mother and writer.