It’s easy to brush off mental health issues as just a “bad day” or a “tough time.” After all, everyone experiences some degree of sadness, worry, and compulsiveness from time to time. Mixed emotions are part of being human, after all. But how do you know when certain feelings could be a sign of a more serious mental health disorder?
The line is drawn at your ability to perform your everyday tasks, according to Gail Saltz, MD, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the New York Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine. “It’s when these things are taken to the degree that they interrupt our ability to function,” says Dr. Saltz, “that they then are called a disorder.”
One of the first signs that something more serious is going on is social withdrawal, according to psychiatrist and HealthiNation Medical Advisory Board member Susan Samuels, MD. When this occurs, people will often engage less with family and friends or lose interest in hobbies and topics.
Other symptoms of a mental health disorder could include:
Excessive sadness or anxiety
Changes in sleep or eating patterns
Changes in sex drive
Physical symptoms like stomach aches, headaches, or chest pain
Thoughts of self-harm or suicide
Another key factor to pay attention to: duration of symptoms. “If something is lasting for two weeks or more,” says New York City-based psychologist Jennifer Harstein, PshyD, “it’s really important to recognize that, ask for help, reach out to your doctor, talk to your partner or whomever, and see where you can get some support.”
If you’re tempted to tough it out, don’t. The longer you sit with the negative thought cycles—untreated—the more developed and ingrained those thoughts can become. This will make it harder to recover, as well as more likely to relapse later on. (Here’s more information on how depression is treated and how bipolar disorder is treated.)
A family history of mental health disorders may increases your chances of developing one, since many mental health issues have a strong genetic component. On the other hand, having a family member with a mental disorder makes you more aware of the symptoms so you can recognize it early and seek treatment sooner.
If a mental health disorder runs in your family, you can still take steps to nurture you mental health. If you suspect you may be experiencing a mental health disorder, the National Alliance on Mental Illness recommends reaching out to your health insurance, primary care doctor, or state mental health authority for resources.
“Because mental illness is genetically based, there’s not a lot you can do to prevent the illness,” says Dr. Samuels, “but there’s a lot you can do to prevent the severity of the illness.”
Know the warning signs. Arlington, VA: National Alliance on Mental Illness. (Accessed on January 10, 2021 at https://www.nami.org/Learn-More/Know-the-Warning-Signs.)
Warning signs of mental illness. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association, 2015. (Accessed on January 10, 2021 at https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/warning-signs-of-mental-illness.)