Mental illness rarely appears out of nowhere. Learning about developing symptoms, or early warning signs, can help ensure early intervention and reduced interruptions in quality of life. For Mental Health Awareness Month, we’re taking a look at some of the early indicators of mental illness

changes in behavior
Odd or uncharacteristic behavior can be a red flag and may be indicative of conditions like anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and bipolar disorder. These changes often manifest as a drop in functioning at school or work, increased absenteeism and difficulties in relationships with peers and co-workers. People may quit activities they previously enjoyed or have difficulty performing familiar tasks.

altered sleep schedule
Sleep deprivation has a big impact on your psychological state, and people dealing with mental illness are more likely to also have a sleep disorder. According to Harvard Medical School, chronic sleep problems impact 10% to 18% of adults in the general U.S. population, but they affect 50% to 80% of patients receiving psychiatric care. Trouble sleeping is common with conditions like anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

appetite changes
Diet impacts mental health more than you may think because serotonin helps regulate sleep and appetite in addition to mediating mood. Around 95% of it is produced in the gastrointestinal tract, so stress can have an impact on food cravings. It can trigger the drive for comfort food, such as sugar-sweetened beverages, baked goods and junk food. This is thought to be due to the release of the hormone cortisol. While stress eating is common in the short term, stress also can shut down the appetite thanks to spikes in adrenaline.

mood swings
No one’s mood is static. We all experience mood swings, but if someone’s mood cycle regularly alternates between highs (hypomanic) and lows (depressive), it can be a sign of mental illness, including conditions like bipolar disorder and cyclothymia. Hypomanic symptoms include euphoria, increased drive to perform, racing thoughts and poor judgment that can result in risky behavior. Depressive symptoms include feeling sad or worthless, fatigue and loss of interest in activities.

increased sensitivity
Mental illness can lead to heightened sensitivity to a variety of sensations. This irritation can be due to physical stimuli like sound, lights, crowds or touch. It also can be emotional with a person being overwhelmed by their racing thoughts or the strong feelings of themselves or others. If you are dealing with increased sensitivity, remove yourself from overwhelming situations, practice deep breathing exercises and try to put space between yourself and your thoughts.

withdrawal and isolation
Withdrawal is a tactic for coping with anxiety and depression. Isolation has both objective and subjective components. Social participation can be measured by contact with other people, such as family, friends and organizations, while loneliness refers to the individual’s perception of isolation. Oftentimes, isolation only worsens the mental health concerns by amplifying the brain’s stress response, resulting in poor sleep quality, impaired executive function and more.

illogical thinking
Irrational or catastrophic thinking is commonly associated with anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder, and delusions may be present in psychosis or be a symptom of disorders like schizophrenia. While irrational thinking is a natural part of life, especially when stressed, it can become intrusive and lead to compulsive behavior. Cognitive distortions are created when illogical thinking becomes a pattern. These errors in thinking or logic affect the way your mind processes information and makes judgements. They can shape your beliefs, mood and how you view yourself and others.

getting help

  • Early intervention can make a big difference for diagnosable mental illnesses. If you or someone you know is experiencing symptoms that seriously interfere with everyday life, seek help.
  • Get an evaluation by your health care provider or a mental health professional.
  • Learn more about mental illnesses, including their signs and symptoms.
  • Consider supportive counseling for strategies for stress management.
  • If you need immediate support, call or text the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988 or visit

Sources: American Psychiatric Association, Mayo Clinic, Harvard Medical School