COPMI - Children of Parents with a Mental Illness - Keeping families in mind

About mental illness: warning signs & symptoms

Confused person

If you know what to look for, you’ll be able to help sooner, meaning a better result for your loved one.

What exactly is a mental illness?

A mental illness causes mild to severe disturbances in thought and/or behaviour. Mental illness can make it incredibly challenging, or even impossible to cope with life’s ordinary ‘ups and downs’. Often these problems occur with high levels of stress.

There are a number of warning signs that a person may be struggling with mental health problems. It’s important you don’t ignore these as early support and treatment can lead to better outcomes. You could make a real difference by helping them with some basic knowledge and the right attitude.

How might I notice the signs?

The outward signs of mental illness often show in a person’s behaviour. They may become extremely quiet and anti-social, or in contrast have outbursts of anger, exhibit great anxiety or burst into tears easily. This behaviour can be just as difficult for the person struggling with a disorder to deal with, as it is for you. So be patient and open up conversation by asking questions, listening with an open mind, and offering support.

As a general guide, the following indicate that your family member or friend may need to speak to a professional:

  • Prolonged sadness, moodiness or irritability
  • Confused thoughts
  • A feeling of emptiness or numbness
  • Losing pleasure and interest in things once enjoyed
  • Extreme highs or lows in mood
  • Extreme anxiety, fear or worry
  • Anti-social, withdrawn behaviour
  • Dramatic changes in sleeping or eating patterns
  • Outbursts of anger
  • Delusions or hallucinations (believing, hearing, seeing, feeling things that aren't real)
  • An inability to deal with daily routines
  • A variety of inexplicable physical complaints
  • Denial of obvious problems
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Alcohol and/or substance abuse

Complexity of symptoms

Even if you observe these symptoms, it can be difficult to know for sure it's due to mental illness. You might see a change in their behaviour, yet attribute it to another cause, or the person might disguise their symptoms. In some cases the symptoms may have been there so long that they now seem ‘normal’. Additionally, the onset of a mental illness is often gradual, further complicating warning signs.

We recommend that if you feel something's not right, trust your intuition and speak with the person encouraging them to get help. You could suggest they take an anonymous online test which identifies common disorders like depression and anxiety, and indicate the need to chat to a health care professional. Remember, this test is just a guide and only a health professional can make a mental health diagnosis.

What can I do?

  • Arm yourself with knowledge about the symptoms of specific mental illnesses, so that you are aware of warning signs of  disorders if they arise.
  • Ask questions and try to be patient and listen with an open mind.
  • Be understanding and let individuals know they don’t have to manage on their own.
  • Encourage the person to see a GP or doctor, or find out if your loved one is open to you making an appointment yourself to find out about what options there are for treatment.
  • Ask how you can support the person who is struggling.
  • If there are children involved, remember to ask them how they feel about what is happening and “be there” for them to talk to if needed.
  • Get help from professionals who can assess and treat the problem.

Understand the symptoms

The symptoms of each mental illness can vary from person to person. Information, including symptoms and possible treatments can be obtained from the SANE and beyondblue websites. These organisations provide information on epression, anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder, postnatal depression, schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder and eating disorders. Other illnesses and of other valuable information can be found in easy to read factsheets prepared by SANE Australia and Mental Illness Fellowship of Australia:

See Also:



Need to talk to someone?