Identifying Mental Illness
Identifying Mental Illness
What is Mental Health?
Everyone feels sad or worried sometimes. How do you know if you’re dealing with more than “just a bad day?”
When we talk about mental health, it is about more than how we feel. Mental health is about how we react to situations. This response includes our emotions, thoughts, physical feelings, and actions.
Sometimes our reactions are helpful. If you have an important test coming up, it makes sense to think about it. You might feel nervous and try to feel better by studying. While you feel anxious, that doesn’t mean you have an anxiety disorder. In fact, if you had no worries you might not prepare and do worse on the test!
It might be a disorder if the intensity of the response is too much. For example, you might feel scared of saying something embarrassing in front of others to the point that you can’t talk.
It can also be a disorder if your reactions have a negative impact on important parts of your life. If you feel so sad you don’t spend any time with other people, you might have depression.
Is It Anxiety?
Anxiety disorders are the most common form of mental illness. Nearly 1 in 3 people in the United States will have an anxiety disorder during their lifetime. That’s a lot!1
Sometimes anxiety disorders affect kids and teens differently than adults. It’s common for anxiety to feel like a physical illness. It can come out as a headache, stomach ache, or nausea. It can also come out as restlessness like you can’t sit still or keep your thoughts focused. It can be frustrating to feel like you can’t explain why you feel bad. You might have the urge to yell, cry, or say mean things.
If someone asks you why you’re upset and you think, “I don’t know,” take a moment to check in with yourself. Are you worried, overwhelmed, or feeling unsafe? There’s a chance that anxiety is coming out as anger.
Here are some more ways to recognize anxiety:
Emotions: Worry, nervousness, dread, overwhelmed, guilt, irritation
Physical Sensations: Fidgety, amped up, on edge, tired, headaches, stomach aches, muscle pain or tension, crying when thinking about worries
Thoughts: Negative thoughts about the future and worst-case scenarios, like;
- Worry about failure (“What if I fail the test?”)
- Being rejected (“What if she makes fun of me for asking her out?”)
- Safety of loved ones (“What if Mom dies during deployment?”)
- Avoiding people or situations related to your worries
- Excessive studying, reviewing, or list-making
- Repeatedly thinking over a situation
- Skipping school or other important activities
- Feeling frozen, unable to talk or move
- Continually seeking reassurance for a situation or decision
A lot of the listed feelings and actions can be normal. Worry becomes an anxiety disorder when it hurts your daily life.
Is It Depression?
Depression is also a common form of mental illness. 1 in 5 people in the United States will have depression at some point in their life.2
Here are some common signs of depression:
Emotions: Sadness, hopelessness, guilt, self-hate, anger, emptiness, not being able to enjoy activities you usually would
Physical Sensations: Tired, heavy, slow, muscle aches
Thoughts: Negative or critical thoughts about yourself, others, or the world, like
- Self-criticism (“I never do anything right”)
- Stressful events (“I’ll never figure this homework out”)
- Failing in relationships (“I make everything worse for them”)
- Thinking about suicide or death
- Isolating from others
- Eating more or less than usual
- Giving up on hobbies or interests
- Spending more time in passive activities like watching videos or playing low-effort video games
- It feels impossible to make decisions about anything
There are some ways depression might affect you differently than adults. When adults are depressed, they tend to withdraw from all people. You might find yourself avoiding adults but still spending time with friends.
Sleep problems can also be a sign of depression. You might still get a normal amount of sleep, but at different times or broken up. Like you fall asleep later and wake up later, or take naps throughout the day. You might feel tired no matter how much you sleep.
Depression can also contribute to unsafe actions. When we feel like “nothing matters anyway,” it can lead to risky decisions. You might take more dares from friends, break the rules, or experiment more with alcohol or drugs.
Depression can also feel like anger. You might feel irritated all the time. You might feel like your temper is harder to control. Sometimes you might have urges for destruction. This could be destroying relationships, throwing out items that you used to care about, or self-harm.
Just like anxiety, some symptoms of depression can be a normal part of life. It’s normal to feel sad or have negative thoughts at times. You will likely feel unmotivated some days.
If you feel like you might have anxiety or depression, it’s important to talk to someone. A mental health provider can give you a full assessment to see if you have a diagnosis. They can also talk about ways to feel better. You can talk to an adult about scheduling an appointment.
Even if you don’t have a diagnosis, talking to other people can help us feel better. Try reaching out to a friend, trusted adult, school counselor, or family doctor. You can also receive confidential counseling from Military OneSource.
A serious symptom of mental illness is thinking about or attempting suicide. If you have thoughts about hurting yourself or suicide, seek help immediately.
- Call 911
- Call a suicide hotline. In the United States, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255)
- Reach out to a trusted adult [https://militarykidsconnect.health.mil/Feelings/How-to-Talk-to-an-Adult]
- Find resources at https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/help-yourself/youth/
1. National Institute of Mental Health (2017, November). Any anxiety disorder. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/any-anxiety-disorder.shtml
2. Patten, S. B. (2008). Major depression prevalence is very high, but the syndrome is a poor proxy for community populations' clinical treatment needs. The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 53(7), 411-419.