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Signs of mental health issues

7-minute read

If you or someone close to you is in crisis, or is at immediate risk of harm, call triple zero (000) and ask for an ambulance. To talk to someone now, call Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636 or Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Key facts

  • Mental health problems are common, so it's important to be aware of possible signs.
  • Feeling worried, depressed, guilty, worthless or feeling an exaggerated sense of 'high' may be signs of a mental health issue.
  • Changes in sleep, weight, personal hygiene or activity at school or work may hint at a mental health issue.
  • There may not be a serious problem, but seek help if signs don't go away after 2 weeks.
  • Don't ignore thoughts or threats of suicide — seek help immediately if someone talks about suicidal thoughts or is engaging in high-risk activities.

How can I tell if someone has a mental health problem?

Almost 1 in 2 Australians will experience a mental health disorder at some point in life. It's important to learn the signs that could hint that a friend or family member is struggling with their mental health.

Often there's not a single sign, but a combination.

A mental health disorder may start out as subtle changes to a person's feelings, thinking and behaviour. If they have ongoing and significant changes, it could be a sign that they are developing a mental health disorder. If something doesn't seem 'quite right', it's important to have a conversation about getting help.

The list of signs is not meant to help you diagnose a mental health disorder. They are to make you aware when there might be a good reason to be concerned and seek professional help.

9 signs of mental illness - infographic

Can you spot the difference between a bad mood and something more serious?

This infographic could point to a mental health issue in someone you love.

What are the signs of mental health issues?

Some of these signs may not be caused by a serious problem. Some could even be a normal part of life. If they don't seem to be going away after about 2 weeks, it's best to seek help.

Feeling anxious or worried

Most people get worried or stressed from time to time. Anxiety could be a sign of a mental health disorder if the worry is constant and interferes with your daily activities. It might lead someone to avoid certain situations.

Physical symptoms of anxiety may include heart palpitations, shortness of breath, chest tightness, headache, sweating, trembling, feeling dizzy, restlessness or diarrhoea.

Feeling depressed or unhappy

Feeling depressed may include feeling sad, irritable or numb, lacking in motivation and energy or being teary all the time. It may include losing interest in a hobby or not enjoying things that you usually enjoy.

Emotional outbursts

Everyone has different moods at different times, but sudden and dramatic changes in mood, such as extreme distress or anger, can be a symptom of mental illness.

Sleep problems

Changes to a person's sleep patterns could be a symptom of a mental health disorder. This includes insomnia or sleeping too much. Some people might sleep all day and be up all night.

Weight or appetite changes

For some people, eating more or less than usual, weight gain or rapid weight loss could be a warning sign of a mental health disorder.

Being more quiet or withdrawn than usual

Withdrawing from life, especially if this is a major change from your usual personality, could indicate a mental health disorder. If a friend or loved one is isolating themselves and refusing to join in social activities, they may need help.

Substance abuse

Using substances to cope, such as alcohol or drugs, can be a sign of mental health problems. Using substances can also cause mental illness.

Feeling guilty or worthless

Thoughts like 'I'm a failure', 'It's my fault' or 'I'm worthless' are all possible signs of a mental health disorder. Your friend or loved one may need help if they're often criticising or blaming themselves for things not in their control.

Suicidal thoughts

With some mental health problems, a person may express a desire to hurt or kill themselves. They may have harmed themselves or be thinking about ways to die. Some people may have thoughts of harming others.

If someone is suicidal or planning to harm themselves or others, they need urgent help. Do not ignore this — call triple zero (000) and ask for an ambulance.

Feeling excessively high

Your friend or family member might seem manic, or overly happy or excited. They might make impulsive decisions or spend large amounts of money that they can't afford.

Neglect and performing less well

You may notice that a friend or relative seems less capable than they used to be. They might be doing poorly at school or work and not fulfilling their responsibilities. They might have stopped caring about their appearance or taking care of personal hygiene. They may have trouble with remembering things or focusing on a task.

High risk behaviour

If a friend or relative starts participating in risky activities — such as unprotected sex, substance abuse, dangerous driving or crime — this could indicate a mental health problem. Seek help straight away.

Bizarre or strange thoughts

Someone might have a mental health problem if they think that:

  • they have a special power
  • someone else is controlling their thoughts or actions
  • people are out to get them (with no reason why this would be true)
  • they can see or hear things that other people can't

Daily actions to improve your mental health

Research from MindSpot has shown that regularly performing five simple actions can improve your mental health. Learn more here.

Where to get help

If you're concerned about a friend or loved one, ask them how you can help. The first step for a person with symptoms of a mental health disorder is to see a doctor or other healthcare professional.

If you need more information and support, visit Mental Illness Fellowship of Australia (MIFA) for resources, helplines, apps, online programs and forums.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: July 2023

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