8 Early Warning Signs of Mental Illness

Disclaimer. This article is meant to be informative. It is not a guide for self-diagnosis. If any of these points apply to you or someone you know, please seek professional medical help. 

If you notice that someone you love needs help, you impulse might be to help them out. More so if they are dealing with a mental illness. So, how do you help someone with a mental illness? 

When placed in that situation, many of us do not know what to do. Typically, you might offer words of support or encouragement. You may want to try to solve everything. However, sometimes your seemingly good intentions can come off as abrasive or insensitive. 

When trying to help someone with a mental health illness, listen. Listen to that person and allow them to voice whatever they are feeling and validate them. Do not try to diagnose them or consult them. Please leave that to a mental health professional. Also, inform yourself about the mental illness and its warning signs so that you can refer them to a professional if necessary. (taking into account if they want to get help also. Don’t try to force anyone). 

Always reach out to a licensed medical health professional for guidance or help.

Below are just a few symptoms that someone with a mental illness might experience.

  • Excessive fear or anxiety

Fear or persistent anxiety can be a warning sign of a mental illness. This symptom usually presents itself in the form of phobias or irrational fears. A person who is experiencing this may not want to go out or be in social settings. The kind of fear that they may be experiencing is persistent and, at times, does not have a particular trigger.  

 This symptom is present in conditions such as depression or bipolar disorder. However, this symptom can also be present with other comorbid mental health illnesses such as PTSD or anxiety disorders. 

This symptom also has physiological presentations, such as fatigue, feeling tense, shaking or trembling, and gastrointestinal irritation. 

Cognitive-behavioral therapy can give someone suffering from this symptom tools to help them manage their anxiety and fears. What you can do is educate yourself about anxiety. Do not enable their fears, but instead help yourself or your friend confront their anxiety by being compassionate, validating their experience, encouraging them.  

  • Social withdrawal

Living with a mental health illness is difficult. It often robs your desire to be around or interact with others. Social anhedonia, the inability to derive pleasure from activities that were once pleasurable, often enables social withdrawal, especially for those with depression. But, social withdrawal can also be a symptom of social anxiety

Social withdrawal does not always look like persistent cancellation of plans. It can also be if a friend seems dazed or engaged during a get-together. To help, try making them feel at ease during a get-together, talk about it and listen to them. Invite them to low-pressure social situations like getting a cup of coffee together or taking a walk. They might be reluctant, but it still lets them know that you are there for them. 

Most importantly, support them when necessary. 

If you experience social avoidance as a cause of a mental health illness, work with a therapist on tactics that can help you cope with this anxiety. Techniques like meditation, mindfulness, and deep-breathing are helpful. 

  • Dramatic changes in sleeping or eating habits

It is common knowledge that mental illnesses affect your sleep and vice versa. According to a 2005 study conducted by Strine and Chapman, subjects who experienced sleep insufficiency reported mental distress, depressive symptoms, and physical pain. However, the correlation between the two does not stop there. It is common for patients with mental illnesses like anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, depression, or PTSD to suffer from insomnia or sleep insufficiency. 

Although we have much to learn about the exact neurological connection between sleep and mental health, scientists, physicians, and therapists have come to understand how vital it is. Sleeping is a regenerative period for our bodies. It enables us to think and learn better and process emotions better. But, when experiencing or before experiencing a decline in mental health, sleep can become secondary.  

Similarly, appetitive responses can change due to a mental health issue. During a mental health episode, emotional turmoil can cause people to overeat and sometimes not want to eat at all. Although most people commonly like a change in appetite to depression, it is also a sign of other underlying mental illnesses. 

2016 study noticed changes in neurocircuitry. Researchers found that depressive participants with increased appetite showed greater hemodynamic activity to food stimuli than those with appetite loss. On the other hand, those with decreased appetite exhibited hyperactivation in the mid-insula region. The mid-insula is responsible for interoception–how you perceive physical senses in your body. 

If you or someone you care for experiences changes in their sleeping or eating habits, encourage them to seek professional help and be there for whatever they might need. If you experience this symptom, take care of yourself by creating healthy eating habits. Make sure to consume foods rich in vitamin B12, vitamin B6, and tryptophan since they will help your mood.

  • Difficulty perceiving reality  

Another early warning sign of a mental illness is difficulty perceiving reality. This symptom can range from delusions and maladaptive daydreaming to hallucinations (auditory or visual). Difficulties in perceiving reality usually is a precursor for psychosis. Those with bipolar disorder or schizoaffective disorder often experience psychotic episodes.

Psychosis is a glitch or disruption between how your brain processes the world and the narrative inside your head. A difficulty in perceiving reality looks like this:

 – hallucinations

– hearing voices

 – feeling paranoia about the actions of others,

 – interpreting experiences differently from others.  

Unfortunately, stigma and negative stereotyping discourage people suffering from these symptoms from seeking help. But, seeking early medical attention might be beneficial. During the early stages of psychosis, you can discern what is real and what isn’t. Hence, getting help early can prevent the psychosis from getting worse.  

If you know someone who is suffering from psychosis or psychosis-like symptoms, refer them to a professional. For mild cases, talk therapy and CBT are the preferred forms of treatment.  

  • Increasing inability to cope with daily problems

Another early warning sign is an increasing inability to cope with daily problems. Despite the ambivalent research available, some studies point to low-stress tolerance as part of the cause. Though there is no definitive way of measuring distress tolerance, it is safe to say that markers of distress, such as irritability, are present during or before a mental illness.  

There are copious articles regarding the links between stress and mental illness. Researchers have explored and discussed the correlation ad nauseam. Hence, I will spare you most of the details. However, there is an interesting bit of information I would like to introduce. It’s a bit sciencey, so bear with me. 

2010 study found an interesting connection between prolactin, stress, and mental health. Although the research focuses on schizophrenia, it can also apply to other mental illnesses. For your sake, I will paraphrase the study.  

Prolactin belongs to the same family as growth hormones and gets released from the anterior pituitary region. The greatest concentration of prolactin occurs during REM sleep with a peak of around 640 mIU/L (units don’t mean much unless you are a med-student, so don’t worry about it), but prolactin during moments of exercise, newborn feeding, eating, and stress. The interesting thing about prolactin is that it is regulated by dopamine, another hormone. Low levels of dopamine can cause mental illnesses, but it can also be causing you stress. To simplify: 

Low dopamine + prolactin = higher concentrations of proclactin = more stress. 

More stress can cause or exacerbate a mental health illness.  

However, because stress and many mental health illnesses have overlapping symptoms, researchers find it difficult to figure out which came first– stress or the illness. 

  • A drop in overall performance 

As a result of stress and poor sleep, another symptom is a drop in overall performance. This symptom can look like an inability to complete work, but it can also look like choosing to overlook yourself (personal hygiene and health). Performance is not always work-related. Mental health illnesses can lead you to perform poorly in your own life. You begin to procrastinate more often, have difficulty getting up in the mornings, and might even experience depersonalization.  

If you or someone you know is experiencing this symptom, do not judge them. Be compassionate and understanding. If necessary, encourage that person to seek help. 

  • Unexplained physical symptoms

All emotions have physical manifestations. For example, you bounce or skip when excited, you tense up when you are afraid, and you cry when you are sad. Similarly, mental health illnesses have physiological manifestations.  

Some physical cues are:

  • headaches or migraines
  • digestive issues
  • muscle tension or soreness
  • fatigue
  • eye aches or vision issues
  • pain

Recently, there has been a lot of research linking chronic pain to mental illnesses. On a neurological level, the neurotransmitters, specifically serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine, are implicated both in pain control and psychosocial disorders. While there are other factors to take into account, there is no doubt that chronic pain and mental illnesses are connected. Hence, be mindful of the physiological cues and work with both a physician and therapist for treatment. 

  • Unhealthy coping mechanisms

The final warning sign of a mental illness is unhealthy coping mechanisms. Some frequent examples of unhealthy coping mechanisms are substance abuse, impulsive shopping, alcoholism, or cutting. A person engages in these behaviors to attempt to manage the symptoms. However, there are healthier alternatives. Some alternatives are:

  • work out
  • draw
  • garden
  • yoga
  • meditate
  • color
  • make a list of things you are grateful for
  • journal
  • play with a pet 
  • scream into a pillow.

Do anything that you makes you feel less stressed and helps you cope with your emotions. Make sure that what you engage in is healthy and beneficial. 

Not all mental health illnesses are the same. They all have varying criteria and present their own set of challenges. However, there are several symptoms they have in common. If you or someone you know suffers from any of the symptoms mentioned in this article, please seek professional help. 

Take care! 


Boyes, Alice. “How to Help Someone With Anxiety.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 13 July 2016, www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/in-practice/201607/how-help-someone-anxiety. 

Bhandari, Smitha. “Mental Illness Symptoms in Children and Adults.” WebMD, WebMD, 18 Feb. 2020, www.webmd.com/depression/mental-health-warning-signs. 

DePaulo, Bella. “Why 5 Types of People May Withdraw From Social Life.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 26 Apr. 2018, www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/living-single/201804/why-5-types-people-may-withdraw-social-life. 

Ghaffari, Nadia. “How to Recognize Early Warning Signs of Mental Illness.” Drug Rehab Options, 23 Mar. 2020, www.rehabs.com/pro-talk/early-warning-signs-of-mental-illness/. 

Harvard Health Publishing. “Sleep and Mental Health.” Harvard Health, 18 Mar. 2019, www.health.harvard.edu/newsletter_article/sleep-and-mental-health. 

Institute of Medicine (US) Committee on Sleep Medicine and Research; Colten HR, Altevogt BM, editors. Sleep Disorders and Sleep Deprivation: An Unmet Public Health Problem. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2006. 3, Extent and Health Consequences of Chronic Sleep Loss and Sleep Disorders. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK19961/

NAMI. “Warning Signs and Symptoms.” NAMI, www.nami.org/About-Mental-Illness/Warning-Signs-and-Symptoms. 

Parekh, Ranna. Warning Signs of Mental Illness, July 2018, www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/warning-signs-of-mental-illness. 

SEEMA. “Know The Warning Signs.” SEEMA, 21 Feb. 2019, seemamentalhealth.com/know-the-warning-signs/. 

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