How to Identify Signs & Symptoms of Mental Illness

Mental illness is a topic that is often shrouded in secrecy and stigma. Even after decades of advocacy and awareness efforts, people are often scared to talk about mental health. The truth is, one in five Americans will experience a mental health condition in their lifetime. And yet, many people still don't know how to identify the warning signs of mental illness. Let's talk about what's normal, and what's not when it comes to mental health. We will also talk about the warning signs of mental illness and how integrative medicine can help you achieve optimal mental wellness.

How to recognize poor mental health

Mental health is the overall standard of how you manage emotions and behavior and is the main regulator of how you think and feel every day. 

What’s considered healthy mental well-being is highly unique to every individual and can be influenced by many things, including genetics, lifestyle, diet, stress, and other physiological factors. As a result, early warning signs for mental health issues may look slightly different for everyone, so it’s helpful to look at how mental health impacts your day-to-day life. 

Poor mental health often negatively affects: 

  • Your interest in activities, relationships, and other social situations
  • Your productivity at work or school
  • Physical health
  • How well you get along with family members and friends
  • Appetite or sleep schedule
  • Energy levels

It’s worth noting that stress and anxiety are normal and appropriate responses to situational triggers such as a job loss, emotional challenges, or other uncertain life changes.

But it's also important to remember that you should process these feelings before they start to negatively impact your wellbeing. You can reach out to your qualified integrative doctor or therapist to discuss additional support.

If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for support from a trained counselor. If you or a friend or loved one are in immediate danger—call 911.

Common mental health issues in the U.S. include:

Anxiety disorders are the most common type of mental health disorder in the U.S., affecting nearly 20% of adults, and 7% of children (1). Symptoms of anxiety can include excessive worry, difficulty concentrating, trouble sleeping, and unexplained pain. 

Depression is a common mental health condition that can cause a persistent feeling of sadness or hopelessness, marked by a loss of interest in activities, fatigue, or changes in daily habits. About 1 in 5 teen girls had at least one major depressive episode in 2020, making adolescent females the most likely to suffer from depression (2). 

Bipolar disorder causes significant mood swings, from periods of mania to periods of depression. Symptoms of bipolar disorder can include insomnia, irritability, and extreme changes in energy levels.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or chronic PTSD (C-PTSD) can develop after exposure to a traumatic event, such as abuse, near-death experience, or other harmful situation. Symptoms of PTSD can include night terrors, anxiety, and avoidance of people or places associated with the traumatic event(s).

Other conditions may affect behavior, such as ADHD and autism, and make it harder to cope with stress.

Related: The Integrative Approach to Anxiety & Depression

Warning signs and symptoms of mental health problems

If you experience any of the signs and symptoms below, you should reach out to a qualified integrative doctor or mental health professional.

Self-medication or substance abuse

Substance abuse is often a form of self-medication for those who struggle with mental illness. Overuse of prescription medications, alcohol, or other illicit substances is a significant warning sign that daily demands of life are exceeding your ability to cope.

A lack of healthier alternative coping strategies can make it more likely someone will turn to alcohol or other substances to deal with complex or negative feelings (3).

Read more: Practical Tips for Stress Reduction

Poor physical health

Symptoms of mental illness can manifest as poor self-care, which impacts physical health. A lack of normal hygiene, such as bathing or showering, not wearing clean clothes, and keeping up with a baseline of grooming can be a red flag for mental health struggles.

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Difficulty maintaining relationships

Symptoms of mental illness can make it difficult to interact with others, and maintain relationships, which can lead to social isolation. It may be hard to hold a conversation, maintain interest in others, or just be present in social situations. 

Loneliness and feeling isolated can be both a symptom and a contributing factor for conditions like anxiety and depression (3). 

Everyone enjoys varying amounts of ‘alone time”, but if you notice that interactions seem overwhelming, and you’re pulling away from close friends and family on a regular basis, this can be a sign of a deeper mental health issue.

Related: 10 Mental Health Activities to Do With Your Children

Difficulty functioning at work or school

Difficulty concentrating, focusing, or completing tasks can lead to problems at work or school. You may feel fatigued or have very low energy or motivation, compared to how you normally feel.

It may even be hard to keep up with household responsibilities and basic daily chores.

Read: Signs & Symptoms of Anxiety in Children

Sudden mood changes

Changes in mood, energy levels, and/or behavior can be a potential sign of mental health conditions. Exhibiting aggressive or violent behavior is one of the more noticeable mental illness warning signs, and it’s important to find out what’s at the root of these behavior changes.

Changes in eating or sleeping habits

Sleeping too much or too little, changes in appetite, restricting foods, or a significant weight gain or loss can all be warning signs of mental health problems.

Withdrawing from activities you normally enjoy

Mental health challenges can result in a loss of interest in activities that were once enjoyable. Feelings of apathy or listlessness are common.

People who report feeling lonely, or who have a physically or mentally demanding lifestyle are at greater risk of serious mental health outcomes (4). 

If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for support from a trained counselor. If you or a friend or loved one is in immediate danger—call 911. 

Can mental health change over time?

Mental health changes over a lifetime are a reality for every individual. Aging, periods of significant stress, the loss of a loved one, and every complex life experience in between influence your mental wellbeing (5). 

Certain situations can trigger mental health problems, such as illness or an injury. Recent life changes appear to be an important element in explaining illness onset (6).

It’s important to be open and honest with yourself, your loved ones, and your doctor about changes you notice in behavior, and not to hesitate to reach out for support during rough times. We call all work to remove the stigma around mental health struggles to help those who need it—before symptoms become severe. 

Want to change the way you think and feel? Try these 7 holistic tips.

Risk factors

Most mental illnesses don’t have a single cause, but are the result of multiple sources involving the following risk factors (3,7):

  • Traumatic brain injuries
  • Environmental factors like being a caregiver or living in an abusive home
  • Loneliness or social isolation
  • Stressful events, such as losing a loved one
  • Chronic illness
  • Genetic predisposition
  • Drug or alcohol addiction
  • Childhood trauma

Sometimes, mental illnesses develop gradually. Other times, mental health problems don’t appear until after a triggering event. 

More than half of all people in the U.S.have one or more of these risk factors, which makes it clear that mental wellness should be a top priority.

Related: Early Onset Dementia is On the Rise: Here’s Why, and How to Protect Your Brain

Steps to take when struggling with mental health

First, it’s important to take care of yourself. This includes the basics like eating a healthy diet, getting enough sleep, and moving your body daily.

Next, here are some steps to help you navigate changes in mental health:

Get to know yourself – Your mental health is intertwined with your thoughts, feelings, and actions. Track your mood, and try to identify thought patterns, and what triggers changes in your feelings.

Seek professional help – A qualified holistic or integrative medicine doctor can assess your individual situation and make personalized recommendations. 

  • Get the support of an integrative team, including a Holistic Nutritionist, Acupuncturist, CranioSacral Therapist, and Integrative Health Coach.
  • Evaluate hormones, diet & lifestyle, and other factors that affect your mood.

Avoid self-medicating – Avoid substances that alter your thinking, such as drugs or alcohol. Self-medicating can lead to dependence and is not a healthy coping mechanism.

Identify your coping mechanisms – We all have different ways of coping with various ups and downs. Do you tend to stress eat? Or go for a run, call a friend, or pour a drink? Every kind of coping skill has benefits and risks, so try to focus on how well your coping skills actually work for you, and not whether they’re considered “good” or “bad”.

Get a Serotonin Boost: Natural Remedies for SAD and Stress

When to see a doctor

There’s never a bad time to meet with a therapist or doctor to discuss your mental health. You do not have to wait until your symptoms are severe. It’s greatly beneficial to begin treatment for mental health issues as early as possible. Ignoring mental health can have dire consequences if left untreated.

An integrative team of physicians can recommend therapy and medication, in addition to diet and lifestyle changes that best support your individual needs, such as:

  • Acupuncture
  • Hormone testing
  • Health coaching or nutrition counseling 
  • Complementary therapies from Ayurveda & traditional Chinese medicine

It’s also important to find support from others. Family, friends, other professionals, or support groups can be a great help. Talking to others who are experiencing the same feelings as you can help you feel more connected and understood.

Learn more about conditions we treat: Depression

Integrative medicine for better mental health

Mental health is an important aspect of overall health. Just like you would go to the doctor for a physical check-up, it’s important to schedule regular mental health check-ups, too. Sometimes we can be our own worst enemies when it comes to recognizing that something might be wrong. 

It’s normal to feel stressed or anxious from time to time, but if your emotions are impacting your daily life in a negative way, it’s time to seek help. The good news is that most mental illnesses are treatable. If you think you might be experiencing symptoms of a mental illness, don’t hesitate to reach out for help. There are many resources available, and your integrative team as CentreSpringMD can help design a treatment plan tailored to you.




ADHD, anxiety, mental health

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