Mental Illness: What are the warning signs?
In an adult:
A person with one or more of the following symptoms should be evaluated by a
psychiatrist or other physician as soon as possible:
• Marked personality change.
• Inability to cope with problems and daily activities.
• Strange or grandiose ideas.
• Excessive anxieties.
• Prolonged depression and apathy.
• Marked changes in eating or sleeping patterns.
• Extreme highs and lows.
• Abuse of alcohol or drugs.
• Excessive anger, hostility, or violent behavior.
A person who is thinking or talking about suicide or homicide should seek help
In a child:
Having only one or two of the problems listed below is not necessarily cause for
alarm. They may simply indicate that a practical solution is called for, such as
more consistent discipline or a visit with the child's teachers or guidance
counselor to see whether there is anything out of the ordinary going on at
school. A combination of symptoms, however, is a signal for professional
• The child seems overwhelmed and troubled by his or her feelings, unable to
cope with them.
• The child cries a lot.
• The child frequently asks or hints for help.
• The child seems constantly preoccupied, worried, anxious, and intense. Some
children develop a fear of a variety of things--rain, barking dogs, burglars,
their parents' getting killed when out of sight, and so on--while other children
simply wear their anxiety on their faces.
• The child has fears or phobias that are unreasonable or interfere with normal
• The child can't seem to concentrate on schoolwork and other age-appropriate
• The child's school performance declines and doesn't pick up again.
• The child's teachers, school administrators, or other authority figures in the
child's life ask the parent what might be troubling the child.
• The child is having difficulty mastering school work.
• Teachers suggest that the child may have a learning disability or other type
• The child loses interest in playing.
• The child tries to stimulate himself or herself in various ways. Examples of
this kind of behavior include excessive thumb sucking or hair pulling, rocking
of the body, head banging to the point of hurting himself, and masturbating
often or in public.
• The child has no friends and gets into fights with other youngsters. Teachers
or others may report that "this is a very angry or disruptive kid."
• The child isolates himself or herself from other people.
• The child regularly talks about death and dying.
• The child appears to have low self-esteem and little self-confidence. Over and
over the child may make such comments as: "I can't do anything right." "I'm so
stupid." "I don't see why anyone would love me." "I know you [or someone else]
hates me." "Nobody likes me." "I'm ugly... too big... too small... too fat...
too skinny... too tall... too short, etc."
• Sleep difficulties don't appear to be resolving. They include refusing to be
separated from one or both parents at bedtime, inability to sleep, sleeping too
much, sleeping on the parent's or parents' bed, nightmares, and night terrors.
• The child begins to act in a provocatively sexual manner. This is more common
in girls as they approach puberty and thereafter, but even much younger girls
may flirt with men in sexually suggestive ways.
• The child sets fires.
Some symptoms or reactions are so serious that a pediatrician or a psychiatrist
should be consulted immediately:
• The child talks about suicide. Children don't talk idly about suicide to get
attention. Once they have begun to talk about it, they also may have begun to
plan a way to do it.
• The child appears to be accident prone. In younger children a succession of
accidents can become the equivalent of suicide attempts. The child mutilates
himself in some way--cutting or scarring himself, pulling out his hair, or
biting fingernails until nail beds bleed. The child mutilates or kills animals.
• The child's eating habits change to the point that his weight is affected.
This can be caused by either overeating or undereating.
• The child adopts ritualistic behaviors. This is indicative of
obsessive-compulsive disorder. A child may have to line up her toys in a certain
way every night, for example, or get ready for bed following a routine that
never varies. If she forgets one item in the routine, she must start all over
• The child beats up others--another child, a parent, or other adult.
• The child is using alcohol or other drugs.
• The child is sexually active or on the verge of becoming so. Again, this is
rare in children 12 and under but certainly not unheard of, especially since
there is great pressure on kids today to become sexually active at progressively
earlier ages. When children are depressed or their self-esteem is low, they may
be more vulnerable to that pressure. Also, if they are still hurting from
feelings of rejection and loneliness related to the divorce, they may be
searching for love and affection and have a need to prove their lovability.