Warning Signs of Mental Illness

Your knowledge and ability to take action can make a real difference in a teen's life. Research shows that if left untreated, mental health problems can become worse over time and may affect a student's school performance, social and emotional life, and future opportunities. However, the good news is that mental health treatment can be effective for teens. Most importantly, the sooner these disorders are recognized, the more likely it is that treatment will be effective.

Making a difference: all adults who interact with teenage students have a role to play.

Adults close to teens – especially parents, teachers, coaches and other school personnel – should learn how to recognize the warning signs of mental health problems, and know how to refer the teen to a mental health professional. Recognition and appropriate help for students with mental health problems has been shown to increase test scores and improve attendance. In addition, research shows that effective mental health interventions and a positive school climate contribute to improved student achievement.

The Typical or Troubled?® program provides education to the school community (teachers, school personnel, parents and others) on early identification of mental health problems, how to talk to the student showing signs, and how to appropriately refer a student to treatment and services.

The following is a list of some of the key warning signs of a mental disorder. Remember, the signs usually aren’t one-time occurrences; they persist over several weeks.

• Marked change in school performance.
• Inability to cope with problems and daily activities.
• Noticeable changes in sleeping and/or eating habits.
• Many physical complaints.
• Sexual acting out.
• Depression shown by sustained, prolonged negative mood and attitude, often accompanied by poor appetite, difficulty sleeping or thoughts of death.
• Abuse of alcohol and/or drugs.
• Intense fear of becoming obese with no relationship to actual body weight, purging food or restricting eating.
• Persistent nightmares.
• Threats of self-harm or harm to others.
• Self-injury or self-destructive behavior.
• Frequent outbursts of anger, aggression.
• Threats to run away.
• Aggressive or non-aggressive consistent violation of rights of others; opposition to authority, truancy, thefts, or vandalism.
• Strange thoughts and feelings; and unusual behaviors.
(List compiled from "Fact for Families," American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP))

If problems persist over an extended period of time and especially if others involved in the child's life are concerned, consultation with a mental health professional, child and adolescent psychiatrist or other clinician specifically trained to work with teens may be helpful.

You can find more information about mental health in the classroom on MentalHealth.gov, a page providing one-stop access to U.S. Government mental health information brought to you by the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).


If you, or someone you know is in suicidal crisis or emotional distress, click here for a list of resources.