What Are the Early Signs of Mental Illness? When Is It Time to Get Help?

If someone you know is unwell, it’s important that you take seriously the early signs of distress or change. The longer they go without necessary treatment, the more trouble and lasting damage they’ll endure. So, if you notice unusual warning signs of mental illness, it’s time to guide them toward help now.

Think about what symptoms are for. When something is going on under the surface—be it a physical, mental, or emotional problem—symptoms appear and alert us to the problem. Symptoms are a way for our bodies and minds to communicate with us directly. They let us know about issues in need of attention.

Too often, we ignore or misunderstand those messages. Starting now, we can take these indications seriously, and we can help each other to take proactive steps toward healing. Especially in cases of mental, emotional, or behavioral upset, it can be easy to overlook the symptoms or to underestimate their severity. We can help each other by recognizing any unusual signs and by taking the importance of treatment seriously.

If someone you care about is showing symptoms of an underlying imbalance, your next steps may be the most important ones to help them recover their health and their life. If you can better understand what are the early signs of mental illness, you can observe your loved one with proactive care and be a vital part of their support system as they move forward on the path of healing.

Recognizing What Are the Early Signs of Mental Illness


There is a wide range of mental health disorders possible: they may affect a person’s mood, their personality, their ability to cope with stress or trauma, or their connection with reality. Likewise, there is a wide range of symptoms and signs of mental illness. So, it’s important to keep an open mind about what you may be noticing in a loved one and be ready to reach for expert guidance at any step of the way.

The following list of warning signs is very diverse. Review these symptoms with the understanding that the person may experience only one or perhaps many. Their particular experience may be a bit different than the symptoms described here. But if you are noticing unusual signs like these, it is worth further attention.

  • Social withdrawal
  • Social difficulties—perhaps awkwardness or communication challenges
  • Feelings of sadness, despair, hopelessness, guilt
  • Persistent worry, nervousness, or fear
  • Unusual or extreme moods
  • Excessive irritability, anger, or aggression
  • Changes in habits: eating, sleeping
  • Changes in weight
  • Problems with one’s performance at work, in school, or with other responsibilities
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering, or thinking clearly
  • More sensitivity to stimulation, sounds, smells, sights, or touch
  • Inattention to personal care or hygiene
  • Loss of interest in things they used to be involved in or apathy in general
  • Feelings of disconnection from their life and their surroundings or even from themselves, their body, and their identity
  • Evidence that they may be harming themselves
  • Preoccupation with death
  • Comments or even jokes about suicide
  • Frequent or heavy use of drugs and/or alcohol

This list of symptoms and signs of mental illness is meant to give you an idea of what you might observe in someone who needs psychiatric treatment. But, in general, you are a good judge of their health status if you have known them long enough to detect changes in their thinking, moods, communication, reactions, behaviors, performance, relationships, or any other area of life. If you suspect that they may be troubled or feeling not quite like themselves, there is probably something real behind your concern. And it’s time to look at next steps toward the path of recovery.

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How Do You Know When It’s Time to Get Help for Your Loved One’s Mental Health?


Mental illness can come on gradually, or it can progress quickly and destabilize someone’s life in devastating ways. In any case, the earlier one gets adequate treatment for their illness, the better their prognosis and quality of life will be. A physician will be able to assess the extent of treatment necessary and whether your loved one needs medication, special therapy, inpatient rehab, or outpatient care. It’s not a good idea to wait and see because the dangers of mental illness can be very damaging to one’s mental health, their physical health, their career, their relationships, and many other conditions of life.

The first step toward healing is an accurate and thorough diagnosis. This can be completed only by a psychiatric professional. It’s best if they are also directly connected to a wide range of treatment options so they can design the very best individualized treatment plan. The goal of treatment is not just about stabilizing someone as quickly and safely as possible; it’s also about setting them up for a long-term recovery path that is empowering and fulfilling. All along the way, it’s important that mental health professionals are understanding and compassionate to best support your family member through the challenges of recovery. You, too, can be a critical part of their path. In fact, comprehensive treatment centers may offer special programming to guide family members in supporting their loved ones in treatment and in their long-term recovery as well.

Bridges to Recovery offers comprehensive residential treatment for people struggling with mental health disorders as well as process addictions. Contact us to learn more about our renowned Los Angeles and San Diego-based programs and how we can help you or your loved one start the journey toward healing.