How to Recognize Mental Health Warning Signs to Keep Yourself and Loved Ones Safe

mental health warning signs

Article At a Glance

  • The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a surge in mental health problems for people of all ages.
  • Untreated mental health issues like depression, anxiety, and trauma increase risk for substance use, suicide, and other health problems.
  • Recognizing the warning signs of mental health issues in yourself and your loved ones can save lives.

Why Mental Health Is So Important

Mental health refers to our emotional and psychological well-being. Being in a mentally healthy state not only helps you feel better on a day-to-day basis, but it can have profound effects on other aspects of health as well. Poor mental health increases your risk for substance use, heart problems, diabetes, stroke, and other medical problems. It also leads to relationship problems, difficulties at work, and an increased risk of suicide.

Effects of COVID-19 on Mental Health and Substance Use

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on mental health. The beginning of the pandemic came with a wave of lockdowns. Many people abruptly began working from home, some lost their jobs, and millions lost access to childcare resources. This led to an unprecedented level of social isolation, one of the major triggers for mental health problems.

In June 2020, the CDC reported a significant uptick in mental health problems among Americans. Nearly 1 in 3 people reported symptoms of anxiety or depression, while 1 in 4 reported stress-related symptoms. Even more concerning, 11% of people reported having serious thoughts of suicide during the past month. Most of these figures represent a doubling of mental health problems compared to pre-pandemic levels.

While mental health problems are themselves taxing, they also increase the risk for substance abuse. In the June 2020 CDC survey, 13% of Americans reported that they started using drugs or alcohol or increased their use since the pandemic began. That is a serious cause for concern. Substance abuse is a common outcome of untreated mental health issues. When people have untreated mental and emotional pain, they look for other sources of pain relief. Alcohol, opiates, and other drugs temporarily numb the pain and provide a short-term way to cope. Unfortunately, using drugs over the longer term can lead to physical dependence, addiction, and the risk of overdose.

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Recognizing mental health problems early is one of the best things we can do to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe.

Recognizing Mental Health Warning Signs in Yourself

Sometimes, mental health problems creep up on us before we realize how bad they’ve become. Because mental health conditions affect your brain, you may not have full insight into the severity of the problem. Use the following checklist of mental health symptoms to recognize any warning signs in yourself:

  • Feeling down, depressed, or “flat”.
  • Withdrawing from social activities that you used to enjoy.
  • Getting less pleasure from life or activities.
  • Major changes in sleep, either insomnia or sleeping more than usual.
  • Major changes in appetite or unintentional weight gain or loss.
  • Panic attacks, which may include racing heart rate, sweating, difficulty breathing, and feeling as though you might die.
  • Constant worry that is difficult to control.
  • A drop in your functioning at work, school, or home. This might include missing deadlines, quitting valued activities, or having greater difficulty completing important tasks.
  • Changes in thinking, such as feeling inattentive or disorganized.
  • Greater sensitivity to sights, sounds, or smells.
  • Loss of desire to participate in activities. This may lead to staying at home and doing less because “I just don’t feel like it.”
  • Feeling disconnected from yourself or your surroundings.
  • Hearing or seeing things that are not really there. This might include hearing voices or seeing people who are not there.
  • Feeling more fearful or suspicious of other people.
  • Wishing you were dead, thinking about suicide, or being preoccupied with thoughts of death.

Recognizing Mental Health Warning Signs in Your Children and Loved Ones

Mental health problems can distort reality and change the way you think. That can make it very difficult for your loved ones to realize how severe their mental health problems have become. Consider the following warning signs for mental health issues in an adult loved one:

  • Appearing sad or depressed
  • Withdrawing from previously enjoyed activities
  • Repetitive behaviors, such as checking door locks or picking skin or hair
  • Paranoia
  • Delusions or odd beliefs, such as suspiciousness about other people watching them
  • Excessive worrying or fear
  • Significant changes in behavior, including apathy
  • Loss of interest in sex
  • Avoiding friends, relatives, or social situations
  • Talking about death or giving away personal belongings
  • Extreme mood changes, including “highs” or euphoria
  • Increased use of drugs or alcohol
  • Problems with job performance
  • Irritability and relationship problems

Children are also susceptible to mental health problems. One survey of 1,000 parents found that 71% think that the COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on their child’s mental health. Mental health providers find that anxiety, depression, and other mental health problems are on the rise. This places children at risk for serious mental illness, health problems, and substance use (particularly for adolescents). Mental health problems can look different in children, making it important to look out for the following warning signs of mental health problems in children:

  • Withdrawal or avoiding social situations
  • Sadness
  • Talking about death or asking excessive questions about death
  • Out-of-control behavior
  • Outbursts, tantrums, or extreme irritability
  • Recurrent headaches or stomachaches
  • Drop in school grades
  • Avoiding school due to being “sick” or skipping school
  • Difficulty concentrating or “spacing out” for no reason
  • Unexplained cuts or bruises that may be signs of self ham
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Weight loss or gain

Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Resources

If you’re experiencing a mental health crisis, you are not alone. Reach out to a professional to get the help you deserve. This could be your primary care physician, a psychologist, a psychiatrist, or another doctor. Even sharing your concerns with a trusted friend or family member can be a good first step toward getting treatment.

Following are some online resources that may be helpful to you in understanding your own mental health and getting treatment:

Mental Health America
Not sure if you or a loved one meets the criteria for a mental health problem? Take these free online screening tests to see whether your symptoms may be a sign of a mental health condition.

Healthline Mental Health Resources
Healthline’s list of symptoms are useful to recognize if you need help and connect you with resources.

National Alliance on Mental Illness
The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) is a leading organization for mental health advocacy. The website has information about suicide prevention, wellness, and mental health resources.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
If you’ve been having thoughts about suicide or harming yourself, call 1-800-273-8255 for free, confidential support.

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention offers online resources and community events for those impacted by suicide.

Conclusion

If you’re worried about mental health problems in yourself or a loved one, get help now. Early treatment of mental health issues prevents problems later on, including the risk of substance abuse, suicide, and medical problems. Look for warning signs of mental health problems and take action to keep yourself and your loved ones safe.

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Written by Aurora Harklute
Aurora is a neuropsychologist and freelance writer with more than ten years of experience with a bachelor’s degree in human physiology, a master’s degree in cognitive psychology, and a Ph.D. in clinical psychology. Aurora writes for a variety of industries within the substance abuse and medical fields. She also specializes in the impact of substance use on mood and cognition.