Linda Lewis Griffith

How to spot early warning signs of mental illness — and offer help

Linda Lewis Griffith
Linda Lewis Griffith

Mental illness affects all of us.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 1 in 5 adults in the United States, or 18.5 percent of the population, experiences mental illness in any given year. Thirteen percent of all children between the ages of 8 and 15 have a severe mental disorder at some time during their lives. Over half of all adults who abuse drugs or alcohol have at least one co-occurring mental illness.

When mental illness goes untreated, the consequences can be devastating. A report issued by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development stated nearly half of all homeless adults suffer from both mental illness and substance abuse. The Center for Disease Control reports suicide was the 10th leading cause of death for all ages in 2013 and the third leading cause of death among young teens. More than 90 percent of children who die by suicide have a mental health condition.

Yet most of us are unaware of the early warning signs of mental illness.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services advises us to be on the lookout for any of the following changes in a loved one:

▪ Eating or sleeping too much or too little

▪ Pulling away from people and usual activities

▪ Having little or no energy

▪ Feeling numb, as if nothing matters

▪ Experiencing unexplained aches and pains

▪ Feeling helpless or hopeless

▪ Yelling or fighting with family and friends

▪ Feeling confused, forgetful, edgy, angry, upset, worried or scared

▪ Having persistent thoughts and memories you can’t get out of your head

▪ Thinking of harming yourself or others

▪ Inability to perform daily tasks like taking care of your kids or going to work

When we do recognize that a family member is experiencing a mental or emotional problem, we’re often at a loss about what to do. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services offers these suggestions:

▪ Express your care and concern. Say, “I’ve been worried about you. Can we talk about what you’re experiencing?”

▪ Remind loved ones that help is available and that mental health problems can be treated. Direct them to professionals or hotlines that can help.

▪ Ask questions, listen to concerns and be responsive when the topic of mental health problems arises

▪ Reassure family members that you love them

▪ Offer to help with everyday tasks

▪ Set limits on their behavior. Do not allow loved ones to yell at you or become physically violent. Don’t give them endless sums of money. Be clear about when they can enter your home, use your car, help themselves to food or invite friends over to the house.

▪ Include loved ones in your plans. Continue to invite them to events without being overbearing, even if they resist your invitations.

Linda Lewis Griffith is a local marriage and family therapist. For information or to contact her, visit

For more information

▪  SLO Hotline: 800-783-0607 or

▪  National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: or 800-273-TALK

▪  Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA):

▪  National Alliance on Mentally Illness (NAMI):

▪  National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH):