How to tell if someone you love has a mental illness

Something seems to be seriously wrong, but there is no bruise, no blood, no swelling, no fever, no rash, nothing that would show in a blood test, x ray, CT scan.

by Marion Bono
by Marion Bono

What could it be?

Families often miss symptoms of mental illness exhibited by their loved ones because the signs are not as obvious as those of physical illnesses. Consider the following scenarios that might present themselves in young adults who fall in the typical onset age of mental illness – late teens to early thirties:

1. A daughter was an honor graduate in high school, and after the first semester in college is fearful, anxious, tearful, isolates in her room and will not go to class.

2. A son was a good student, class leader, all-around athlete, is having an impressive career in the military when he becomes agitated, irritable, confused, and has trouble putting thoughts together.

3. A daughter-in-law has been a responsible mother, loyal wife, and efficient office manager when she suddenly starts spending money excessively and behaving recklessly without concern for the consequences of her actions.

What is the source of these mysterious moods, behaviors, and thoughts? The young adults involved are smart, capable, and responsible. What happened? While families try to figure this out, tensions arise. People start blaming. They tell the person acting strangely to SNAP OUT OF IT! They waste valuable time trying to “make sense” of what is happening. They need to get professional help. Research has shown that the earlier the intervention, diagnosis, and treatment of the symptoms of mental illness, the better the prognosis.

For decades psychiatrists have used a detailed diagnostic manual (called DSM-IV TR) to identify mental illnesses according to their “clinical signs,” based on the self-report of symptoms from the patient. A diagnosis is made on the basis of how a person feels, acts, behaves, and thinks. Families who become familiar with some of these basic symptoms have a better likelihood of getting the right kind of help for their ill relative. Not all of these symptoms have to be present.

The following descriptions of three of the major mental illness diagnoses are taken directly from the NAMI Family-to-Family Education Program offered by NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

–          Schizophrenia: lack of insight, suspiciousness, unwillingness to cooperate, false ideas, emotional dullness, poor rapport, hallucinations.

–          Major depression: depressed mood (sad or irritable); loss of interest or pleasure in daily activities; too much sleeping or persistent insomnia; extreme fatigue; inability to think, remember, concentrate, or make decisions; feeling of  guilt, worthlessness.

–          Bipolar disorder:  abnormally elevated, expansive, euphoric, and/or irritable; decreased need for sleep – staying up all night; increase in goal directed activity; activities that bring painful consequences (excessive spending, foolish business investments, sexual recklessness); grandiose, excessive talking, rapid thoughts, distractibility.

Parents and other family members should not try to figure this out by themselves. The longer the delay in recognition of symptoms and referral to treatment, the longer the delay in alleviation of the symptoms. To love your family member is to act on their behalf. An immediate assessment by a mental health professional is imperative.

For information on how to get help for you and the family member experiencing the symptoms of mental illness, call NAMI Southwest Louisiana, 337-433-0219.

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Marion Bono, a member of NAMISWLA, facilitates a support group and teaches the Family-to-Family course, from which these articles are taken.
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