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Early Signs & Symptoms of a Mental Health Illness

by Syed Qasim
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Experiencing occasional mental health concerns is common for people of all ages, but when ongoing symptoms impact daily activities and quality of life, it may signal a mental illness.

Learning to recognise early signs and symptoms is crucial for timely intervention and improved outcomes.


What is mental Illness?

Mental illness, also called mental health disorders, encompasses various conditions impacting an individual’s thinking, feeling, behaviour, or mood.

Contrary to common misconceptions, mental health conditions are not indicative of personal weakness, poor character, or inadequate upbringing. Instead, they result from a complex interplay of genetic, biological, psychological, and environmental factors.

While severity and symptoms vary greatly between individuals, many disorders share common features. Below is an overview of some of the most prevalent types.

Common Mental Disorders

  • Mood Disorders – Impact emotions, causing sadness or mood swings.
  • Anxiety Disorders – Excessive worry, panic attacks, intrusive thoughts.
  • Personality Disorders – Confused thinking, unstable emotions.
  • Psychotic Disorders – Loss of touch with reality, hallucinations.
  • Eating Disorders – Unhealthy eating habits, distorted body image.
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorders (PTSD) –  Result from trauma, causing flashbacks and nightmares.

Early Signs and Symptoms

Understanding common signs of mental illness is vital for prompt intervention. Most major mental illnesses do not appear abruptly; instead, subtle changes precede their full manifestation.

Recognising these warning signs enables individuals, friends, family, and educators to take proactive steps toward seeking help from a health professional.

Your local GP can be a good place to start, or seeking help from a psychology clinic. Psychologists are mental health professionals trained to identify and diagnose problems in people’s thinking/behaviour and can help to catch a developing mental illness early.

Mood and Emotional Changes

Understanding mental health begins with acknowledging extreme mood and emotional shifts.

Prolonged sadness, tearfulness, or diminished interest may indicate depression.

Anxiety is marked by excessive worry, panic attacks, and disrupted sleep. Bipolar disorder manifests as episodes of elevated mood and impulsivity.

Look for signs of:

  • Prolonged feelings of sadness, tearfulness, and hopelessness.
  • Excessive worry, panic attacks, and physical symptoms such as a racing heart and disrupted sleep patterns.
  • Elevated mood, poor judgment, and impulsivity (may be indicative of early stages of bipolar disorder).

Behavioural Changes

Social withdrawal reflects a desire for distance, often due to isolation or interpersonal difficulties.

Substance abuse may emerge as a coping mechanism, exacerbating mental health issues over time.

Changes in eating habits highlight the link between emotional and physical health.

Risk-taking behaviours signal impulsivity, while self-harm underscores the need for urgent professional intervention.

Look for signs of:

  • Avoiding social activities, or withdrawal from friends.
  • Substance abuse.
  • Changes in eating habits.
  • Engagement in risk-taking behaviours, such as reckless driving or gambling.
  • Self-harm is where individuals deliberately inflict harm on themselves.

Cognitive Changes

Common cognitive challenges include:

  • Frequent distractions, and struggles to complete routine activities.
  • Delusions, false beliefs and resistance to evidence.
  • Hallucinations leading to a false/distorted perception of the environment.

Look for signs of:

  • Difficulty concentrating and frequent distractions.
  • Inability to complete routine activities.
  • Delusions and false beliefs resistant to evidence.
  • Hallucinations and sensing non-existent stimuli.

Physical Changes

Early signs often manifest physically, with disruptions in sleep patterns, alterations in appetite leading to weight changes, and unexplained aches or headaches.

Fluctuating energy levels, low sex drive, fatigue, and neglect of personal hygiene become visible signs of emotional struggles.

Recognising these physical changes alongside emotional and behavioural shifts signals a need for attention.


Look for signs of:

  • Disruptions in sleep patterns.
  • Alterations in appetite that lead to weight changes.
  • Physical symptoms like unexplained aches, headaches, and digestive issues.
  • Fluctuating energy levels, resulting in fatigue or restlessness.
  • Neglect of personal hygiene.

While one or two symptoms alone may not predict a mental illness, experiencing several simultaneously, causing significant disruptions, warrants professional attention.

Taking Action & Getting Help

Research emphasises the effectiveness of early intervention in minimising symptoms, preventing hospitalisation, and improving prognosis. Encouraging individuals to seek help, educating them about mental illness, and providing supportive counselling are integral steps in the early intervention process and putting them on the path to mental wellbeing and resilience.

If you or someone you know exhibits signs of mental illness, reaching out to a mental health professional is paramount. Understanding and recognising the signs, along with accessing professional support, can make a significant difference in an individual’s journey toward recovery.

In a mental health emergency, call triple zero (000). You can also call Lifeline on 13 11 14 — 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

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