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How to Recognize the Symptoms of Mental Illness

By Kimberly Spector Wolf ; Updated August 14, 2017

LIVESTRONG.COM is dedicated to empowering and inspiring people of all ages to live active, healthy lives. In light of that mission, the Editorial Team has partnered with to create content that promotes health and wellness for teens.

In early 2015, ESPN’s profile of Madison Holleran, a University of Pennsylvania runner who seemed to be living a charmed life committed suicide, stunned readers. One particularly chilling aspect of Madison’s story was that her glistening Instagram profile gave no indication that she was on the verge of taking her life.

Madison’s story illuminates a significant challenge for those whose loved ones and friends struggle with mental health issues – outward appearances, especially in the age of social media, can be very misleading. Symptoms of mental illness and warning signs for suicide can be slight. It can be hard to gauge the severity of a loved one’s battle and how much help they need.

Signs of Mental Illness

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) lists the following among common signs of mental illness. Even slight changes can be cause for concern:

  1. Mood changes
  2. Excessive sadness
  3. Difficulty concentrating
  4. Changes in eating patterns
  5. Substance abuse
  6. Withdrawing from friends or social outings
  7. Inability to follow through on daily tasks
  8. Lack of energy
  9. Mentioning suicide

If you think there is any reason to be alarmed, there are steps you can take. You likely will not be able to solve the problem yourself, but you can provide support.

How to Help a Friend or Loved One With Mental Illness

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services suggests the following steps to help your friend or loved one feel supported:

  1. Approach your friend with compassion and reiterate the fact that you care for them
  2. Listen. Let your loved one know that you are always there to talk if there is something they want to address.
  3. Ask if they feel comfortable talking to you, and if not, ask if you can set up a conversation with someone they do feel comfortable speaking with.
  4. Offer to help research and connect the person to professionals who can help.
  5. Reach out and include them in plans, even if they don’t always join. 

In helping a friend manage their mental health, it's also important to care for yourself and get the support you need. If you're unsure which steps to take or if the situation is affecting you in negative ways, seek guidance from a mental health professional. For more information and suggestions, visit or

-- Kimberly Wolf

Readers -- Do you have a friend or loved one who suffers/may be suffering from a mental illness? What steps did you take to help them get professional help? Did you try any of the steps mentioned above? Leave a comment below and let us know.

Kimberly Wolf, M.Ed., is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of, a new health, wellness and lifestyle destination just for teenage girls. Kimberly graduated from Brown University, where her senior thesis exploring the history and evolution of sexual-health content in girls' magazines earned honors in Women's Studies. She also holds a master's degree in human development and psychology from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where she studied adolescent health and media. She is a national speaker and has been quoted on such websites as, WebMD and

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