Warning signs that may indicate a mental health disorder could be mistaken for the kind of common reactions that often occur in the teen years due to rapid changes experienced at this time of life or at other times during periods of high stress. Yet, according to the National Institute of Mental Health Disorders, which is part of the National Institutes of Health, suicide is a leading cause of death in those aged 15 to 24.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) lists possible symptoms that can appear and can help with finding a local NAMI chapter in your area or finding treatment. The NAMI HelpLine can be reached Monday through Friday, 10 am-6 pm ET at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264) or via email at email@example.com. If you or someone you know needs helps now, you should immediately call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or call 911.
Possible symptoms of mental health disorders include the following:
- Excessive worrying or fear
- Feeling excessively sad or low
- Confused thinking or problems concentrating and learning
- Extreme mood changes, including uncontrollable “highs” or feelings of euphoria
- Prolonged or strong feelings of irritability or anger
- Avoiding friends and social activities
- Difficulties understanding or relating to other people
- Changes in sleeping habits or feeling tired and low energy
- Changes in eating habits such as increased hunger or lack of appetite
- Changes in sex drive
- Difficulty perceiving reality (delusions or hallucinations, in which a person experiences and senses things that don’t exist in objective reality)
- Inability to perceive changes in one’s own feelings, behavior or personality (lack of “insight” or anosognosia)
- Abuse of substances like alcohol or drugs
- Multiple physical ailments without obvious causes (such as headaches, stomach aches, vague and ongoing “aches and pains”)
- Thinking about suicide
- Inability to carry out daily activities or handle daily problems and stress
- An intense fear of weight gain or concern with appearance
While all ages can struggle with mental health issues, children’s symptoms may be different than those of adults. Here is NAMI’s list of warning signs that may occur in children:
- Changes in school performance
- Excessive worry or anxiety, for instance fighting to avoid bed or school
- Hyperactive behavior
- Frequent nightmares
- Frequent disobedience or aggression
- Frequent temper tantrums
Does talking about suicide make children and adults think about it more? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), evaluation research done in the 1980’s pointed out the dangers of sensationalizing and glamorizing suicide in classroom discussions. Misinterpretations made people think this meant all related school programs were dangerous.
Since that time, the CDC states that students (and others) can benefit from programs that present suicide in a factual way. Programs that address “protective factors,” which can mitigate against suicide, can be helpful. Even in elementary school, protective strategies can be enhanced through curricula that focus on social problem-solving skills, coping strategies, and the identification of trusted adult members of the child’s support system.
Similar advice is given to today’s journalists. When writing about suicide, covering a local event or broader news such as the death of a celebrity, staying with the facts, avoiding grim details, and highlighting resources that can help with mental health issues is the best course of action. Failure to follow these guidelines can cause further damage to the community and, possibly, additional suicides.
Many myths surround suicide. Among them is the idea that people who often talk about completing suicide are just trying to get attention and are not seriously considering going through with the act. This is not true. Talking about suicide could be a person’s way of asking for help. Don’t ignore them.
Other myths include these misconceptions:
- It’s not my job to handle that kind of thing. (If you have contact with an individual you suspect is suicidal, you have a responsibility to help. Don’t leave him alone.)
- Only people with mental illnesses are suicidal. (For many people, a mental health disorder may be undiagnosed, but many others do not have a mental illness.)
- Once someone is suicidal, he will always remain suicidal. (Most people do find help and are able to live productive lives, whether they manage a mental illness or not.)
- Most suicides happen suddenly without warning. (Some suicides are the result of impulsive decisions or impairment by substances, but many people struggle for weeks or even years before completing suicide.)
- People who end their lives are selfish. (The victims of suicide are most often gentle, intelligent people who have lost hope that their pain will end and who often cannot control their own thoughts and actions.)
- Having a loving support system that meets the needs of an individual prevents suicide. (Suicide crosses all boundaries. Love is not enough to prevent suicide.)
Many factors write the complex story of suicide. Each person is different, but each person deserves to live.
This article was first published in Psych Central's World of Psychology blog (24 March 2020).