Early Warning Signs of Mental Illness

Knowing the early warning signs of mental illness helps you take charge of your mental health and wellbeing, for recognizing when something is wrong is an important step in caring for yourself so you can feel "right" again. Often, long before a diagnosis of mental illness for themselves or a loved one, people gradually begin to notice that something is seriously wrong. Something just seems off or extra challenging in one or more areas of life:

  • thoughts
  • feelings
  • behaviors
  • general interactions with the world

An awareness of the early signs of mental illness can help you or a loved one get the help needed before life spirals out of control.

What is a Warning Sign of Mental Illness?

Each different type of mental illness has a distinctive pattern of thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. With the exception of trauma or brain injury, these signs of mental illness don't just suddenly appear as severe disruptions in someone's life and functioning. Rather, there are indications, some subtle and some not so subtle, that mental illness is brewing.

The hints that something is truly wrong come in the form of signs and symptoms. While symptoms are things that a person experiences and can talk about, they can't be directly observed by others. Signs of mental illness, on the other hand, are things that can be seen by others.

There are early warning signs of mental illness. Knowing them helps people seek help. Find out the early warning signs of mental illness on HealthyPlace.

Specific Early Warning Signs of Mental Illness

A requirement of mental illness is significant distress or impairment in someone's daily life. There are early warning signs that mental illness is developing or present but still mild. Each disorder has its own set of specific symptoms, of course, but there are general early signs of mental illness. If they are persistent or concerning, the person should see a doctor or therapist for a mental health assessment

People don't need to have every item on the below list to know that there may be something clinically wrong, and people don't have the exact same warning signs as others. Some possible early warning signs of mental illness that you might notice in yourself or a loved one include:

  • a marked change in one's sense of self, a feeling a change in who you are, that manifests through displayed emotions and behaviors
  • psychosomatic troubles; often, people seek help for one or more physical problems (headaches, digestive problems, significant aches and pains, for example) that don't go away yet can't be pinpointed by doctors and the tests they order
  • confusion or disorientation, fogginess; again that others can spot
  • difficulty concentrating, learning, and staying on task; you can't accomplish things or get things done like you used to
  • inability to carry out daily activities
  • difficulty handling stress
  • avoiding friends and social activities
  • increased irritability
  • changes in sleep patterns (considerably more or less than usual)
  • changes in eating habits accompanied by significant weight loss or gain
  • substance use to mask problems (referred to as self-medicating)
  • suicidal thoughts (noticeable to others through ambiguous statements about not being able to go on, saying that people would be better off without them, giving away possessions, etc.)
  • problems and struggles that worsen rather than get better
  • a vague sense of shutting down that shows itself through withdrawal from activities, relationships, work, school, and life in general

See "What mental illness do I have?

Aspects of Early Signs of Mental Illness

There are additional characteristics of these early warning signs that must be present to truly indicate that mental illness is a possibility. The individual signs alone aren't enough, as everyone experiences many of these from time-to-time in his/her lifetime. Merely having tough times and showing some of the above signs of mental illness doesn't mean that someone qualifies for a diagnosis of mental illness. (Learn about mental illness diagnosis tests that help determine whether a person has a mental illness and what type of mental illness it may be.)

To truly be warning signs of mental illness, someone must exhibit them on an ongoing basis rather than merely occasionally. Further, the experiencing of these signs originates from within the person; rather than external events causing distress and disruption. With mental illness, these signs come from the inside. That's because mental illness is brain-based, not because someone is weak or flawed. Also, while they often begin subtly, the signs become, and remain, extreme and intense.

Paying attention to the warning signs of mental illness, emotions and behaviors that are stressful, disruptive, and noticeable by others, can help you take charge of the illness and your life by getting mental health help sooner rather than later.

APA Reference
Peterson, T. (2019, October 16). Early Warning Signs of Mental Illness, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, June 18 from

Last Updated: October 23, 2019

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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