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10 Signs of Mental Illness in Young Adults

signs of mental illness in young adults

An estimated 1-5 adults in the United States are living with a mental illness each year, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). A mental illness is a serious condition that affects your thoughts, feelings, and mood. If not treated properly, some mental illnesses could result in suicidal thoughts

In this article, you’ll discover some common signs of mental illness in young adults.

Signs of Mental Illness in Young Adults

Mental illness appears in many different forms and affects everyone differently. This can make it difficult to identify mental illness, especially for young adults. In fact, it’s not uncommon for some people to live unaware that they have a disorder.

There are several common signs of mental illness to consider if you suspect something is not right. When looking for symptoms of mental illness, it’s important to consider how many of the following signs you notice together.

10 Signs of mental illness in young adults:

  1. Substance abuse
  2. Excessive worry
  3. Frequent mood swings
  4. Insomnia
  5. Lack of sleep
  6. Avoiding others
  7. Fluctuating Weight
  8. Changes in appearance
  9. Confusion or Forgetfulness
  10. Reports of nightmares

Let’s take a closer look …

1. Substance Abuse

One of the most obvious signs that something is off with your friend’s mental health is if he or she begins to overuse substances.

A bit of drinking and experimentation is typical during our youthful years, but those who take it to extremes are often attempting to compensate for other problems.

In the field of psychology, drug and alcohol use is often referred to as self-medicating. Rather than obtaining relief from mental health symptoms through therapy or psychiatric medication, a person will turn to substance abuse, which will likely develop a dependency and require addiction treatment.

Unlike with more healthy ways of treating the symptoms, substance abuse rarely turns out well for the user.

2. Excessive Worry

There’s a big difference between stress and anxiety.

Excessive anxiety can keep us from enjoying ourselves and can prevent us from enacting plans for our future. While the anxiety may start out rational, it can progress to being unreasonable and highly restrictive.

When taken to the extreme, anxiety can mean isolating from others and engaging in obsessive behaviors.

3. Frequent Mood Swings

If your even-keeled friend suddenly begins flying into rages or breaking down into tears, it is cause for concern.

This lack of emotional regulation can be a sign of temporary stress or can be a sign that your friend is suffering from more worrisome conditions. Certain mental disorders result in chemical and hormonal changes which can cause a person to feel overly energetic one day, and completely drained of hope during the next.

On its own, the inability to regulate emotions may be due to something such as bipolar disorder. If the drastic changes are associated with social interaction, it may be due to a condition like borderline personality disorder.

4. Insomnia

Not being able to obtain a good night’s sleep is often a first sign that something is amiss.

If there is something tangible which can be isolated as the cause – such as excessive caffeine intake, or temporary deadlines to meet – insomnia can be expected. When it is recurrent and occurs with no known source, it may be a sign of mental illness.

Both depression and anxiety are common producers of insomnia, and not being able to sleep well creates a vicious cycle of making these conditions worse.

5. Lack of Insight

If it is apparent to everyone else that your friend has a problem, but he or she appears utterly unaware, there is a chance that mental illness is at work.

Not only is a lack of awareness of one’s own problems a sign of denial, but it can also indicate more serious mental conditions. Certain personality disorders – such as narcissistic and anti-social – are associated with this lack of insight, as are mental illnesses that are associated with psychosis.

6. Avoiding Others

While some people feel safe to be very open with sharing what it is that bothers them, others have the idea that it is better to not burden their friends.

If you notice that your friend is isolating from phone calls, texting, and going out for social events, it will pay to check up on him or her. Isolating behaviors are associated with depression; substance abuse; paranoia; and suicide attempts.

You may be unable to coax your friend out into the open, but showing your concern may be enough to get them through.

7. Fluctuating Weight

It’s not uncommon for people to either turn to or avoid food as a way to cope with an emotional problem.

This type of change in behavior can result in fluctuating weight. While some people find comfort in eating more food, others prefer avoiding it as much as possible.

Either of these examples can result in an eating disorder, which may cause serious physical health issues if ignored. Many mental health treatment programs offer eating disorder treatment for people experiencing anorexia, bulimia, and other issues relating to diet.

8. Change in Appearance

If your friend has always been unconcerned with following fashion trends, or always arrives at work looking a bit frazzled, there most likely isn’t a problem.

If your high-style friend begins coming to work with hair undone, facial products not applied, and wrinkles in her clothing, take notice.

When we are under excessive stress or heading into a depression, spending energy on our physical appearance can be the first to go.

9. Confusion or Forgetfulness

There are several mental health disorders which can cause a change in cognition.

Depression and anxiety can make information retrieval difficult, as can the beginning stages of some psychoses. If your friend is normally on the ball with retaining and processing information, and suddenly begins to lose that ability, it may be mental illness at work.

10. Reports of Nightmares

One of the most frequent symptoms of trauma or excessive stress is the occurrence of nightmares.

During our sleep, our unconscious minds can attempt to bring our mental and emotional problems to our awareness through depicting the distress in dream imagery. While the occasional nightmare is to be expected, recurring or terrifying dreams can be a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder; excessive anxiety; or impending psychosis.

Frequently Asked Questions

How many mental health disorders are there?

Over 200 mental health disorders have been identified.

Is mental illness a disease?

No. Mental illness is better characterized as a disorder that describes psychological conditions.

Can mental illness be treated?

Yes. There is a wide range of mental health treatment options available today.


Now that you know some of the most common signs of mental illness in young adults, you will be able to identify warnings of a mental health issue. 

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