Signs & Symptoms of Mental Illness

The symptoms of mental illness depend upon the specific disease. Each mental illness is characterized by both similar and different behaviors which originate in thoughts, beliefs and emotions. Commonly dealt with mental health disorders can include depression, generalized anxiety, panic disorder, OCD, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Learning to distinguish the symptoms of these and other mental health disorders helps individuals get one step closer to receiving the treatment they need to lead a happy and healthy life again.


Depression may be acute, chronic or intermittent. Different types of depression can range in their duration and severity but will normally share some of the same symptoms. These symptoms include:

  • Feelings of sadness, worthlessness or emptiness
  • Irritability, anger, frustration
  • Lack of interest in formerly pleasurable activities
  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Low energy, apathy or marked fatigue
  • Change in appetite or weight
  • Slowed movement, speech and thinking
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Thoughts of death or suicide

Generalized anxiety disorder

Everyone experiences a normal amount of anxiety caused by things such as sleeping through an alarm and being late for work or having a flat tire. This is anxiety that is relieved when the situation is resolved. In contrast, generalized anxiety is characterized by incessant worry about even the most insignificant things and then worrying about worrying about them.

Generalized anxiety disorder is characterized by a combination of mental and physical symptoms. Mental symptoms are exhibited by an inability to relax and a failure to focus or make decisions. When action is needed, a person with anxiety will think through options and then fail to act or reach a negative conclusion. Physical symptoms include, fatigue, muscle tension, irritability sweating, nausea, diarrhea or headaches. People with anxiety often isolate themselves and withdraw from social occasions and family members.

Panic disorder

Panic disorder is normally known for causing panic attacks. These attacks are very upsetting to people as they occur without warning and at any time. There is a sense of impending disaster or even death. A person may experience chest pain, a racing heart and the fear of another attack at any time. Symptoms include:

  • Sudden, frequent attacks of five to ten minutes duration
  • Sweating, labored respiration, weakness, dizziness, stomach pain
  • Feeling hot or cold
  • Fear of losing control
  • An illogical sense of danger
  • Fear of a heart attack
  • Avoidance of places where prior attacks occurred

Obsessive compulsive disorder

It’s normal to perhaps check twice that the iron is turned off or the door locked but a person with OCD will check the same thing over and over and over and never be convinced that all is well. They have no control over their behavior and feel compelled to continually repeat it. There are many manifestations of OCD, it may be repeated hand washing until the skin is raw to avoid perceived germs, the compulsion to put specific items in specific places in an exact pattern or a compulsion to count certain items or add certain numbers. Some can only perform their obsession at particular times of day. It is the compulsion which drives the obsession.

Obsessions are involuntary, apparently uncontrollable thoughts, images or impulses which occur repeatedly in the mind. To the person experiencing them they are often distracting and disturbing. Unfortunately, following the compulsion and carrying out the obsession does not bring relief but actually reinforces the compulsive thoughts, making them more time consuming and demanding.

Bipolar disorder

This disorder was formerly known as manic depressive disorder and is characterized by unpredictable mood swings which go between depression to mania with many variations. Changes in energy and activity levels are noted which affect a person’s ability to carry out daily tasks. Much different from the normal highs and lows of everyday life, bipolar disorder results in damaged relationships, poor performance at work or school and even suicide attempts. Bipolar disorder most commonly appears in the late teens or early adulthood and for a few, later in life. Diagnosis is difficult and many patients show symptoms for a long time until accurately diagnosed.

In the manic phase, a person appears overly happy and energetic but still shows irritability. They may speak fast, have racing thoughts and take on too many tasks. Restlessness is noted and little sleep seems to be required. They may display impulsive and high risk behavior.

In the depressive phase a person experiences sadness or hopelessness and shows no interest in activities they formerly enjoyed. They will seem fatigued, have difficulty concentrating or making decisions and be restless and irritable. Sleeping and eating patterns change and there may be thought of or attempts at suicide.


The diagnosis of schizophrenia is made when the symptoms of delusions, hallucinations, incoherent speech, gross disorganization and flat emotional response are present for a period of at least one month.

If the delusions are bizarre or the hallucinations include a voice with a running commentary on the person’s thoughts or behavior or there are two or more voices conversing with each other, the diagnosis may be made with only one presenting symptom.

Finding help

Any person exhibiting signs of mental illness should be assessed immediately by a doctor who will then refer them to a psychiatrist, psychologist or other mental health professional for treatment. If you or your loved one is dealing with a mental health disorder, you can contact the Florida Mental Health Helpline for assistance in finding the treatment needed to regain a happy and healthy life again. If you would like further information, please call 866-846-5588 to speak with a member of our team.