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Ask anyone their idea of mental illness and it is more than likely that they tell you about dementia, Alzheimer's or schizophrenia. While these are some of the most debilitating mental health conditions, many others aren't as easily recognised. Conditions such as depression and anxiety often do not show any apparent symptoms.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), mental health disorders are among the most common reasons for suicide in the world. Identifying the early signs and talking to a doctor at the earliest can save lives. On World Mental Health Day, we review 12 such signs of mental health illness that you should not ignore.
1. Stomach pain: Recurring stomach pain is usually associated with acidity or indigestion. But if you only get stomach aches when you are anxious or worried, it may be a sign of poor mental health.
Notice how people often compare the feeling of anxiousness as a knot in the stomach, as if they are sitting in a rollercoaster? Researchers at Harvard University say that your gut has a deep connection to your brain. Every time you get anxious or stressed, your brain sends signals to your gut to slow down - the brain puts digestion on hold, so it can focus on eliminating the threat. When this happens often, it leads to stomach cramps, bloating and pain.
2. Chronic pain: Your gut may be the first to gauge your mental health condition. But if you ignore the signs, the rest of the body may feel the effects soon enough. Estimates suggest that people living with depression are three times more likely to get chronic pain.
There seems to be an overlap in the brain cells that help you perceive pain and depression. So, any disturbance in this network may make you depressed as well as increase your pain perception. That’s why most anti-depressants have a dual function as analgesics (painkillers).
3. Repetitive behaviours or tics: Do you have a friend who taps their foot, talks fast or bites their nails all the time? Repetitive behaviour is yet another sign of persistent anxiety and stress. People with anxiety tend to feel restless most of the time and hence subconsciously show repetitive behaviours. In medical parlance, this is known as psychomotor agitation. This restlessness also causes sleep disturbances and fatigue.
4. Uncharacteristically passive or aloof behaviour: Every individual has a distinct personality; some are quiet and reserved while some love to go out and socialize. But if your normally outgoing friend withdraws from friends and family, and prefers to live in isolation, then it may be a sign of depression or bipolar disorder.
While it is okay to need some “me” time every once in a while, people with certain mental health conditions, especially depression, tend to be more withdrawn. They also have flat or blunt facial expressions and tone of voice.
However, there is another condition known as “smiling depression” that falls on the opposite end of the spectrum of social withdrawal. People with this type of depression can appear happy on the outside while they may still be having passive suicidal thoughts. This type of depression is even harder to recognise because it does not have the typical symptoms. If you feel burnt out in the morning or cannot find the will to do everyday tasks, you might have this kind of depression. Talk to a friend or a doctor, for an intervention.
5. Weak immunity: A 2004 study done at the University of British Columbia, Canada, found that people who live with anxiety and stress tend to fall sick easily. This is because every time a person worries about something, their brain sends signals to their immune system that slowly suppress overall immunity. This makes people who stress more prone to even the most common infections.
Strangely, stress can also cause your immune system to go into overdrive and become hyperactive, which may lead to autoimmune disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus.
6. Dramatic mood changes: It is okay to feel angry, sad or emotional according to our circumstances, but unreasonable dramatic emotional outbursts such as anger or crying regularly hint at depression or some other mental illness.
7. Constant sadness: If you or your loved one feels sad, teary, empty inside, then you/they may be dealing with depression. You may have a perfect life, with everything going well but still feel sad if you are depressed. This is because depression is a clinical condition which is not under your control.
8. Living with unexplained guilt: Being too critical of oneself, having low self-esteem or feelings of worthlessness, and blaming oneself for everything that goes wrong may be signs of a mental illness like depression. If you notice any of your family members or friends living with constant guilt and talking about having suicidal thoughts, do not take them lightly. They may need immediate medical help.
9. Worried about everything: It is natural to be worried under some circumstances, but if anxiety becomes part of routine life and affects our day to day existence, then it may be a sign of an underlying mental health condition.
Some of the symptoms of anxiety are heart palpitations, headache, breathlessness, diarrhoea and restlessness.
10. Changes in sleep habits: Constantly disturbed or irregular sleep patterns may be a sign of mental illness. Sleeping too much or too little or not at all (insomnia) may also be a sign of a sleeping disorder, depression, anxiety or substance abuse.
11. Substance-abuse: Alcoholism and drug addiction may also be associated with mental illness. People who consume alcohol or drugs in an attempt to cope with emotional or mental pressures may gradually become dependent on them. In some cases, substance abuse can even cause mental health conditions like depression.
12. Sudden change in appetite and weight: Appetite and weight changes are common diagnostic symptoms of major depression. While some people may lose interest in cooking and/or eating, others may indulge in binge eating to satisfy their emotional hunger.
Dealing With Mental Illness
Acceptance is the first and most important step in the healing process. Recognise that you or a loved one may need support and possibly medical intervention for a mental health condition. Don’t panic or feel ashamed to discuss it. Conditions like depression and anxiety can be managed or treated with medicines and therapy.
Neither feel guilty nor assign blame: open up, talk to your family members and friends, and seek medical help.
Educate yourself about mental health, related disorders, their symptoms, and the treatments available for them.
Don’t expect superfast results. It can take some people weeks and others years to recover from a mental illness. Each case has its own pace of progress and setbacks. Take the support of family.
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