Signs of Mental Disorders in Adults and Children of Varied Ages

Signs of mental disorder are different in young children, teens, and adults. Learn those signs and helpful tips on what you can do and how to cope.

Nearly one in every five adults suffer from mental illness. One in every twenty people have severe mental illness including bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. The illness can affect all areas of life including ability to interact with others, work, and perform simple daily tasks.

Researchers are unsure what causes mental illness. It could be linked to family history, lifestyle, and traumatic events. It also depends on how your brain chemicals work to cope with stress. Mental illness is different for everyone and recognizing the symptoms of mental illness is the first step in getting help.

People can recover from mental illness and sufferers can learn to cope and function within society. Proper treatment is key. If the signs are found early on and support provided, recovery is possible.

Common Signs of Mental Illness in Adults

Mental illness rarely comes on suddenly. Changes tend to be small and people close to someone who is suffering will notice that things aren’t quite right. It is important to notice subtle changes in order to get early intervention and help.

Around half of the cases appear by the teen years, around 14 years of age. Three-fourths tend to show up by the mid 20’s. The signs include:

  1. Withdrawing from interests or social involvement
  2. Reduced level of ability to perform at work or school
  3. Confused thoughts and trouble remembering
  4. Overly sensitive to stimuli such as light, sound, touches, smells and avoidance of crowds
  5. Lack of proper emotion and the inability to cry with sadness or laugh with happiness
  6. Disconnection from surroundings and reality
  7. Overly imaginative, exaggerated beliefs, and thinking that isn’t logical
  8. Rapid changes in moods
  9. Changes in sleep patterns and eating
  10. Behavior that is not normal
  11. Anxiety and fear

Having just a few signs doesn’t mean mental illness is present, but if there are more than two signs it may be a strong indicator that there is a problem. If mental illness goes untreated, there can be significant problems with functions in life. In most severe cases, suicidal thought can occur or thoughts of harming others. This should be taken care of immediately by calling 911 or a suicide prevention hotline.

Common Signs of Mental Illness in Children

Young children, school age children, and teens can also suffer from mental illness. Parents should be able to recognize the signs in children in order to get them help quickly. Here are the signs by life stage:

Preschool Children

  1. Signs of hyperactivity
  2. Behavior issues
  3. Disobeying rules
  4. Aggression towards other children
  5. Unusual fears
  6. Crying a lot
  7. Sleep issues
  8. Nightmares
  9. Temper tantrums
  10. Separation anxiety

In children, it is important to get a full medical checkup first and if everything physical checks out okay ask for a referral for a mental health evaluation. Sometimes symptoms of health issues can manifest as emotional issues.

School Age Children

  1. Lack of friends
  2. Trouble getting along with other kids
  3. Worrying and fearful
  4. Hyperactive behavior
  5. Refusal to go to school
  6. Poor school performance
  7. No interest in hobbies or activities
  8. Reduced appetite
  9. Weight loss or gain
  10. Poor body image
  11. Sleep issues
  12. Sadness
  13. Abusing substances (alcohol, marijuana)
  14. Highly imaginative

One or two symptoms does not mean your school age child is suffering from mental illness, but more than two can signal an issue with mental health and needs evaluation.

Tweens and Teenagers

Teenagers who are suffering from mental illness can have very pronounced symptoms. Mental illness coupled with the normal hormonal changes can heighten symptoms and the associated risks. If your teen shows any of these signs, seek help:

  1. Running away from home or threatening to leave home
  2. Withdrawal from social activities or family life
  3. Threats of harm to self or other people
  4. Destroying property, setting things on fire
  5. Truancy and/or poor performance in school
  6. Constant defiance of authority
  7. Inappropriate behavior (multiple sexual partners, hanging out with the “wrong crowd”)
  8. Drug use
  9. Theft
  10. Strong feelings of resentment towards family members

What to Do About Signs of Mental Illness

If you think you are seeing mental illness signs in a family member, keep track of any mood swings, emotional responses, and their behaviors. Mental illness can worsen over time if it is not properly evaluated and treated.

Mental illness can have cycles from happy moods to down moods and symptoms may appear and disappear. There aren’t always outward signs and people tend to hide how they are really feeling deep down inside. Make a point to talk often about how they are feeling inside.

When to Seek Help

If symptoms are apparent and you notice a pattern, make an appointment to have an evaluation by a therapist. Your physician can help with a referral and evaluate for medical issues.

Immediate evaluation is needed if you notice:

  • Violent behaviors
  • Threats to others
  • Threats of harm to self
  • Hallucinations
  • Claims of seeing or hearing things
  • Reckless decisions and behaviors
  • Catatonic state (not speaking, moving, eating, drinking)

If you need immediate help, call a mental health hotline or get to your nearest emergency room. Many county mental health centers have an emergency line and can tell you what to do even if your loved one isn’t a patient.

Coping Tips for Family Members

When spotting signs of mental illness, actions should be taken immediately:

  • Take care of their physical health. Ensure that he/she is getting enough nutrition by eating the right meals, getting enough sleep and staying away from bad habits like drinking, smoking, and using drugs.
  • Remember your own needs. Your loved one may need you, but you need to remember to take care of yourself first. While you may need to work in therapy appointments and being there for your loved one, try to keep your life stable and avoid too many changes. Many caregivers can experience depression themselves brought on by the stresses of caring for a mentally ill family member.
  • Don’t forget the rest of the family. When a loved one is diagnosed with mental illness, you may turn all of your focus to that one person. Other family members need you too and may grow resentful. Include them and talk to them about what you are doing. Remember to take some time for everyone. Talk to your therapist about having a few family sessions to help them understand and develop healthy coping skills.
  • Make a family date night. Have one night every week where everyone in the family gets together to spend time doing something fun. Sunday dinner and a board game will help keep everyone “grounded” and feel normal.
  • Don’t single them out. Make sure you include your loved one with mental illness and treat them the same as everyone else. It is okay to be vigilant, but help them feel independent. Avoid labels or using their diagnosis in open conversations. While mental illness has a “stigma” and is okay to be acknowledged, it doesn’t have to be the focus. 


Common and Rare Types of Mental Illnesses

There are various types of mental disorders, involving anxiety disorders, depression, behavioral disorders, thought disorders, substance-abuse disorders, etc.

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