Mental health is finally entering the mainstream—it’s been a hot topic in the news and on social media. So you’ve heard of it. And you’re also going through… something. But how do you know if what you’re experiencing fits the definition of a mental illness?
Looking for signs
Mental illness is just that—an illness. Try to think of your mental health the way you think about your physical health. We all experience ups and downs in our physical health. Some days you might feel a little sore, or tired, or sniffly. That doesn’t necessarily mean you’re “sick.” You know you’re sick when you notice that:
- Changes are new. Your experiences are different from what you’re used to in your life. Maybe you felt anxious, sad, or fearful before, but now it feels more than what you’re used to.
- The changes get in the way of living. Things that are normally easy now feel a lot more difficult. Maybe it’s even bad enough that you can’t make it to school or work, or maybe it stops you from socializing or doing the things you love.
- It’s not getting better. Just like when you get a cold – things might go away in a few days, and you’re back at work. If you try to make changes and nothing is making it get better, it’s a good sign that seeing a profession can help explore what might be going on and how to get better.
Mental illness is the same way. The only difference is that instead of looking for physical symptoms, like a runny nose or an upset stomach, you’re looking at your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Here are some examples of things that might tip you off:
- You used to be really cheerful and outgoing, but lately all you want to do is sit in your room.
- Things you used to enjoy have lost their appeal. Food doesn’t taste as good as it used to, and all your favorite music just sounds boring.
- You’re always falling asleep in class. It’s hard to pay attention and do well in school.
- Your friend is talking and you’re trying hard to listen, but you can’t concentrate. All you can think about is bad things that might happen.
- Recently you started hearing voices that no one else seems to hear.
- You can’t leave the house without checking all the locks several times. You do this so much that it’s making you late for work.
- You’re always irritated, and you can’t stop snapping at people.
Of course not all of these will apply to you, but they all have something in common: there’s some change in your thoughts, feelings, or behaviors that makes it harder for you to live a normal life.
If you think you might have a mental illness, there are a few different things you can do. Taking any action is better than nothing, so start with whatever seems most helpful to you:
- Take a mental health test to get a sense of how severe your symptoms are. The more intense they are, the more important it is to seek help! Try taking a few different mental health screens—even if you’re pretty sure you have a mental illness, you might not know which one. And having a label for what you’re experiencing can be really helpful.
- Talk to someone you trust about what you’re going through—a friend or a family member is a great start! A family member might be able to tell you about your family history. Just like with physical illnesses, mental illnesses have genetic components.
- Make sure it’s not drug-related. One of the first things a doctor might ask is whether your mental health problems are related to a physical health condition (like another illness, puberty, or hormone changes) or substance use. This might be something to explore with your family as well!
- Get educated. Learning about mental illnesses and building awareness about what’s happening to you gives you control and knowledge to help you advocate for your well-being. No one is a better expert on your experiences than yourself.
Finding out that you have a mental illness can be tough. So whatever your next steps are, take some time to sit with your feelings. It’s okay to be overwhelmed or discouraged. But there’s also good reason to feel hopeful—mental illness is common, and recovery is possible!