Despite the rising awareness regarding the importance of mental health and the various mental illnesses, people are still reluctant to seek professional help. Sometimes this maybe due to the stigma attached to the mental illness itself; at other times, it maybe because of poor knowledge of one’s own illness and what to do about it. Being aware of mental illnesses and the way they present, their symptoms and signs, may prove very important, as the first step to seeking help itself, is to know when to seek help.
Once you visit a mental health professional, you may then clarify all of your doubts/ questions regarding your illness with your treating Psychiatrist/ therapist. However, the following are some pointers that may make you more aware regarding your own mental health. These symptoms may not be indicative of mental illness per se when presenting alone; however, when presenting as a cluster of symptoms or when causing significant distress and dysfunction, these become more important and should not be ignored.
- Sleep and appetite changes: Sleep changes in the form of decreased sleep time, difficulty in initiating or maintaining sleep, vivid dreams, nightmares, early morning awakening, or even excessive sleepiness may present in isolation or in relation to other symptoms of mental illness. Sleep disorders are treatable and earlier they are treated, the better. When seen as a part of a mental illness, the treatment of the underlying mental illness becomes of prime importance. Appetite may decrease or increase as a part of some mental illnesses like Depression or Eating disorders. Sometimes these changes may result in changes in weight, resulting in severe weight loss or weight gain (respectively).
- Change in functioning :Functioning of an individual is usually evaluated with respect to Social relations and Occupation. These two areas are usually assessed in case of a psychiatric illness as these are the most affected. If there is any dysfunction in either of these areas resulting from the mental health issue in question, it definitely warrants a professional assessment and further management.
- Difficulty having clarity of thought, memory issues, loss of concentration : An occasional difficulty in concentrating or remembering/memorizing, maybe normal. But frequent forgetfulness, inability to concentrate or pay attention, inability to think clearly or make decisions, is definitely a cause of concern.
- Friends/family members notice changes in you : Oftentimes patients do not realize the change in their behavior that results from the mental illness. Many a times, it is brought to their attention by significant others, family, friends, co-workers and other caregivers. This occurs in many cases of Drug use/ abuse or even Depression. In most psychotic disorders, patients may have no insight or nearly absent insight into their behavior and hence illness.
- Feeling low or irritable most of the time : Occasionally, feeling irritable or low is not uncommon. But when such mood changes last longer and are present at most times in a day, on most days, they acquire significance. Such mood changes maybe a part of mood disorders, like Depression, that needs treatment.
- Unable to feel joy or interest: In certain illnesses, like, Depression, the person may complain of a loss of interest in performing not only their routine activities, but also, activities that were of interest to them previously, like hobbies. In some, there may be a lack of motivation or enthusiasm, that is definitely lower than their previous levels. In severe cases, the person may suffer from Apathy, a state of complete indifference, feeling no emotions.
- Severe mood swings : Though mood swings do occur in normal individuals, some mood changes may be taken much more seriously than others. In Mood disorders like Depression and Bipolar Mood Disorder, mood changes are accompanied by a host of other symptoms and as such should better be evaluated by a mental health professional.
- Avoiding people/ social interactions/ situations: In certain Anxiety disorders, the persons may actively avoid certain situations or social interactions. In Depressive disorders, this avoidance may stem out of social withdrawal, where the patient does not feel like interacting with anyone and avoids all kinds of social contact.
- Feeling anxious, having racing thought, panic attacks: Though restlessness is again common, patients who suffer debilitating anxiety, that disables them from performing their normal routine/ functions, should most definitely seek help. Anxiety may present in different forms for different persons; the symptoms may be bodily symptoms like a pounding heart or tremulousness or mental symptoms like fear of dying or racing thoughts. The restlessness may be episodic like in Panic attacks or maybe Situational like in some Phobias.
- Abusing drugs; Some patients may abuse alcohol, nicotine, or even other drugs to cope with their depressive features or even anxiety. Some patients however, develop a full blown “Addiction” and hence may need intensive treatment.
- Feeling fearful, suspicious, hearing voices inaudible to others, aggression: In psychotic disorders, most often seen in young adults, the patient may feel their reality altered; they may become fearful of their surroundings or even other people and may also perceive that which is not really present (hallucinations). They may become suspicious/paranoid; many a times this may result in aggressive behavior.
- Having illogical or repetitive thoughts; In psychotic disorders the person may have illogical thoughts that may result in an irrelevant speech. In Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, the person may have repetitive thoughts (obsessions) which they frequently act upon (compulsions). In Depression, a person may have negative thoughts resulting in a negative world view. Such abnormalities in thinking warrant evaluation and treatment.
- Feeling helpless, hopeless, worthless or excessively guilty: In Depression, due to the negative self image the person may feel worthless, due to the negative view of the world they may feel helpless and due to the negative view of the future, they may feel hopeless. Sometimes excessive and inappropriate guilt may dominate their thoughts.
- Having thoughts of dying/ ending life: This is one of the most serious of all complaints. When a person has thoughts of dying (suicidal thoughts), immediate help should be sought. More often than not, these thoughts arise out of mental illness and should be given complete attention, warranting a complete assessment and treatment.
- Chronic aches/pains/ other bodily complaints: Many a times, even bodily symptoms arise out of deep underlying psychological issues. These patients may keep visiting different health professionals like physicians, surgeons, orthopaedicians for their symptoms only to get temporary or no relief. Symptoms like headache, lower backache, pain in the nape of neck, tingling sensations, numbness and various other bodily complaints that have been present for a long duration and are poorly or not responsive to treatment are more likely psychological in origin and respond much better to Psychiatric treatment.
The above are just some helpful pointers that may not cover all symptoms of the various mental illnesses. Any new symptom, behavior change that may cause distress or dysfunction may ideally get assessed for a professional opinion, if the patient or their caregivers may feel the need for the same.
Disclaimer: This blog provides general information and discussion about medicine, health and related subjects. The words and other content provided in this blog, and in any linked materials, are not intended and should not be construed as medical advice. If the reader or any other person has a medical concern, he or she should consult with an appropriately-licensed physician or other health care worker.