Breaking the Stigma on Mental Health: Warning Signs & Coping Skills

May 19, 2018 by Cheryl Proska in Mental Illness

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. In observance, IVA is producing a three-part blog series, entitled “Breaking the Stigma on Mental Health,” to help end social discrimination against mental illness. This is part two of the series. Click here to read the previous post.


50% of all chronic mental illnesses begin by the age of 14, and 75% by the age of 24. However, the average delay between onset of symptoms and intervention is 10 yearsmental illness warning signs

As discussed earlier, the line between poor mental health and mental illness can be hard to define. After all, everyone has feelings of sadness, anger, confusion, or fear –– but how can we tell if these behaviors are expected, or indicative of a more serious problem?

The answer is simple: by learning to recognize the common warning signs, and how they may present at different stages of life.

Warning Signs

While each disorder has its own specific symptoms, there are several behaviors that could indicate the general presence of an underlying mental illness. Early warning signs may include:

In younger children…
  • Changes in school performance
  • Poor grades despite strong efforts
  • Changes in sleeping and/or eating habits
  • Excessive worry or anxiety (i.e. refusing to go to bed or school)
  • Hyperactivity
  • Persistent nightmares
  • Persistent disobedience or aggression
  • Frequent temper tantrums


In older children and pre-adolescents…
  • Substance use
  • Inability to cope with problems and daily activities
  • Changes in sleeping and/or eating habits
  • Excessive complaints of physical ailments
  • Changes in ability to manage responsibilities – at home and/or at school
  • Defiance of authority, truancy, theft, and/or vandalism
  • Intense fear
  • Prolonged negative mood, often accompanied by poor appetite or thoughts of death
  • Frequent outbursts of anger


In adolescents, young adults and adults…
  • Confused thinking
  • Prolonged depression (sadness or irritability)
  • Feelings of extreme highs and lows
  • Excessive fears, worries and anxieties
  • Social withdrawal
  • Dramatic changes in eating or sleeping habits
  • Strong feelings of anger
  • Strange thoughts (delusions)
  • Seeing or hearing things that aren’t there (hallucinations)
  • Growing inability to cope with daily problems and activities
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Numerous unexplained physical ailments
  • Substance use


Coping Skills

Problems in mental health occur when external stressors trigger a chemical change in the brain. Therefore, effective treatment focuses on restoring that imbalance by reducing or eliminating stressors altogether. If mental illness symptoms are interfering with day-to-day-life, consider these tips:

Acknowledge your feelings.

Understanding is the first step to acceptance, and only with acceptance can there be recovery.” This quote, famously written by J.K. Rowling in the Harry Potter series, speaks volumes to living with mental illness. Allow yourself to recognize these feelings are valid, normal, and manageable.


Establish a support system.

If you or a loved one have, or think you have, a mental illness, reaching out for help can be hard. That’s why a strong and stable support system is critical for those learning to cope. This trustworthy network can help alleviate stress, increase self confidence and feelings of value, and decrease feelings of loneliness and isolation.


Build a coping “toolbox”.

This toolbox consists of coping skills and activities you can do to maintain a stable mood or to get better when you’re feeling “off.” Activities/tools can include:

  • Meditation
  • Physical activity
  • Reading
  • Laughing
  • Eating well
  • Resting
  • Taking up a new hobby


Avoid negative coping skills.

Not all coping strategies are constructive. Stress-relieving activities that end up causing more harm than good are known as negative coping skills, and should be avoided at all costs. These include:

  • Drugs
  • Excessive alcohol use
  • Self-mutilation
  • Ignoring or storing hurt feelings
  • Sedatives
  • Stimulants
  • Excessive working
  • Avoiding problems
  • Denial


Seek Treatment.

Remember: asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness. If mental illness is getting in the way of your every day life, seek the help of a medical health professional.



Check out Part 3: Finding Help


For immediate access to resources, or to learn how you can get involved with breaking the stigma of mental health, visit:

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