Mental Health Warning Signs and When to Ask for Help

The signs and symptoms of mental health issues can vary widely in severity and frequency from person to person. That’s why it’s not always easy to determine if what you’re feeling is something situational that may pass on its own, or whether it’s something persistent that may require professional help.

It’s important to know that mental health issues do not need to be “serious” in order for you to reach out for support. Whatever you’re going through, your feelings and experiences are valid and you deserve support. But if you are starting to feel concerned about what you are noticing about your mood or behavior, there are warning signs to watch out for—and effective ways to seek help for whatever signs you’re seeing.

How to Tell the Difference Between Mild and Serious Mental Health Challenges

Mental health professionals typically measure the seriousness of a mental health issue by what impact it has on a person’s everyday life, and by the circumstances that led to the issue. Mild mental health challenges are often less persistent and less disruptive to a person’s everyday life, while serious mental health challenges can be so severe that they negatively impact a person’s relationships or performance at work or school.

For example, let’s say you have an important exam coming up. Feeling some stress or anxiety before the exam is normal. But if your anxiety is so severe that you skip school to avoid taking the exam, that would be more concerning because it signals both a disruption to your everyday routine and can cause concrete negative consequences in your life or wellbeing. Anxiety so severe that it leads to physical symptoms or panic attacks would also be a reason to seek support.

It’s also important to take into account the context around a mental health challenge. It’s normal to feel sadness or grief after the death of a loved one, feel angry after a breakup, or anxious about starting a new job. In these situations, it can be helpful to talk to a therapist or counselor about how you’re feeling—but it may not be considered a serious or severe challenge unless it’s negatively impacting your everyday life.

What are the Warning Signs of a Serious Mental Health Challenge?

There are many warning signs of serious mental health challenges to watch out for, including but not limited to:

Warning Signs: Mood Changes

  • Feeling sad or “down” for long periods of time without a specific reason for the feeling, like the loss of a loved one
  • Noticeable mood changes from very high, like euphoria, to very low, like deep sadness or depression
  • Constantly or excessively worrying about a stressful event or incident
  • Feeling empty or apathetic about aspects of life
  • Outbursts of anger, hostility, or violence
  • Having trouble relating to others thoughts and feelings, or feeling empathetic and understanding of others

Warning Signs: Behavioral Changes

  • Suicidal thoughts or behaviors
  • Engaging in self-injury behaviors, like cutting
  • Feeling like you’ve “lost time” or have large gaps in memory
  • Withdrawing from friends, family members, or social activities that you once enjoyed
  • Experiencing delusions, or beliefs in things that aren’t real
  • Experiencing hallucinations, or sensory experiences that feel real but are not. For example, hearing voices that no one else can hear or feeling things crawling on your skin.

Warning Signs: Physical Changes

  • Sudden sweating, nausea, increased heart rate, or troubled breathing along with intense worry or fear
  • Disturbed sleeping patterns, either sleeping too much or too little
  • Feeling fatigued regardless of how much sleep you get
  • Noticeable changes in sex drive or sexual activity, including engaging in risky sexual behavior
  • Noticeable changes in eating behaviors. For example restricting your eating or binge eating, feeling fearful of foods for no apparent reason, or having body image issues related to weight or eating.

If you or someone you love are struggling with one or more of the following symptoms for two weeks or more, consider reaching out to a mental health professional for support. If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts or engaging in suicidal behavior, seek help immediately by calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741.

When to Seek Help for a Mental Health Challenge

If you notice any of these changes in your own (or others’) moods or behaviors, there are questions you can ask to gauge how much these changes are affecting life:

Changes at Work or School

  • Am I missing school, avoiding certain classes, struggling in school, or missing out on extracurricular activities?
  • Am I constantly thinking or worrying about what’s going on at school, even when I’m not there?
  • Am I missing work, avoiding certain tasks, or struggling to complete or understand a task?
  • Am I constantly thinking or worrying about what’s going on at work, or my performance at work, even when I’m not there?

Changes in Relationships

  • Am I fighting with my parents or family members more often than usual?
  • Am I fighting with my friends or partners more than usual?
  • Am I forgetting important events or tasks, or do I feel like I’ve “lost time”?
  • Do I ever feel disconnected from reality, or hear, see, or feel things that others do not?
  • Do I ever feel like others are out to get me, or purposely hurt me?
  • Has a parent, friend, teacher, or other person checked in on me, asked about my mental health, or expressed concern about changes they’ve noticed in my behavior?

Self-Injury

  • Have I thought about harming myself as a way to cope with how I’m feeling?
  • Have I harmed myself by cutting, burning, deep scratching, or by other means?
  • Have I injured myself with the intention of causing myself harm, but not dying?
  • Have I injured myself with the intention of dying or ending up in the hospital?
  • Have I harmed myself, or expressed thoughts about harming myself, to get someone else’s attention?

Suicidal Thoughts and Behaviors

  • Have I had passive suicidal thoughts, like thinking “I want to die,” “I want to kill myself,” or “My family would be better off if I died”?
  • Have I made a plan to attempt suicide?
  • Am I planning who will get my belongings, and how to say goodbye to loved ones?
  • Have I written a suicide note?

How to Seek Help for a Mental Health Challenge

If you notice these changes in your or a loved one’s behaviors, especially if you’ve answered “yes” to some of the questions above, it’s important to reach out for support as soon as possible. The longer someone goes without treatment, the more serious symptoms may become—and, in the case of symptoms like delusions or self-injury, untreated symptoms can have serious consequences to your health.

The first step in getting help is talking to an adult you trust, like a parent or caregiver, teacher, guidance counselor, or doctor. Especially if you’re still in school, it’s important to seek help from a trusted adult, because they can help you find the mental health resources you need, like a counselor or therapist. If you are ready for a conversation but don’t know who to turn to,

Let your friends know what you’ve been experiencing, and ask for their support. While friends are not a substitute for help from a mental health professional, they can support you in other ways, like by creating a safe space for sharing your feelings, holding you accountable to your treatment goals, and comforting you when you get overwhelmed.

If you are having suicidal thoughts or engaging in suicidal behavior, seek help immediately by calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.

How to Help a Friend Find Mental Health Support

Friends can be a very important part of our mental health support network. Often our friends are the first to notice when something’s wrong, because they know us so well. If you are concerned about changes in a friend’s mood or behavior, here are some ways you can help:

  • Start the conversation. Tell them what you’ve noticed and express your concern. It’s important to stay calm and non-judgmental. Use “I” statements, like “I’ve noticed you’ve been skipping class lately, is everything okay?” Or “I saw what you posted last night, do you want to talk about it?”
  • Encourage them to seek help from a parent or caregiver, therapist, doctor, or guidance counselor. If you’re able to, offer to help them find a therapist or reach out on their behalf to a trusted adult.
  • If your friend is feeling suicidal or engaging in self-injury, do not keep it a secret. They may feel like they need to keep it a secret out of shame or fear—but that will prevent them from getting the help they need. If they tell you, let them know you need to tell a trusted adult for their own safety, even if they get mad at you for doing so. Encourage them to tell someone themselves.

Remember to take care of yourself. Sometimes taking care of others can take a toll on our own mental health. If your friend is struggling, offer to support them in the ways you feel able to, and remember to have your own mental health support in place—whether that’s a therapist, self-care, or other healthy methods of coping.

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