Symptoms of Mental Health or Substance Use Concerns

Recognize the Signs


A million Coloradans experience a mental health or substance use disorder every year. Although treatment is effective, half of those people will not get the care that they need (Mental Health America, 2019, The State of Mental Health in America)

Recognize the signs

When someone is experiencing a mental health or substance use issue, they may begin to exhibit certain behaviors. As a family member or friend, you may notice certain changes in your loved one that indicate they are experiencing a mental health or substance use issue.

Signs of a mental health issue

  • Persistent worry or low mood
  • Rapid mood swings with intense emotional highs
  • Increased and prolonged irritability
  • Loss of enjoyment in hobbies
  • Withdrawal, avoiding social interactions
  • Changes in appetite: increase in hunger or a lack of appetite
  • Changes in sleep patterns: excessive sleeping or wakefulness
  • Changes in sex drive
  • Misuse of alcohol or other substances
  • Fears that are not grounded in reality and delusions
  • Difficulty concentrating or learning new material
  • Intense concern with appearance or weight gain

Signs of a substance use issue

  • Increased aggression or irritability
  • Changes in attitude or personality
  • Lethargy, a lack of energy
  • Depression
  • Dramatic changes in habits and/or priorities
  • Involvement in criminal activity
  • Bloodshot or glazed eyes
  • Dilated or constricted pupils
  • Abrupt weight changes
  • Changes in sleep patterns: difficulty sleeping or sleeping too much
  • Poor physical coordination

Signs of a mental health issue with a child or adolescent

Children and adolescents may display different signs of a mental illness, depending on their developmental level. Some of the behaviors that might indicate your child is experiencing a mental illness include:

  • Decline in school performance
  • Poor grades despite strong efforts
  • Constant worry or anxiety
  • Repeated refusal to go to school or to take part in normal activities
  • Hyperactivity or fidgeting
  • Persistent nightmares
  • Persistent disobedience or aggression
  • Frequent temper tantrums
  • Depression, sadness or irritability

Source: Mental Health America, Recognizing Mental Health Problems in Children

It can be difficult to tell the difference between behaviors that are normal based on your child’s development and behaviors that indicate they need more support. Learn more from the National Institute on Mental Illness about the difference between normal development and potential signs of a mental illness in children and adolescents, as well as what steps you can take as a parent to care for you child.

Supporting a loved one

If you begin to recognize the signs of a mental illness or are concerned about substance use in a friend or family member, there are a number of steps you can take:

  • Learn about mental health or substance use disorders. Consider taking a mental health first aid class.
  • If you think your loved one may have a substance use issue, explore ways to start a conversation with them about it using this guide by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
  • Ask if they are getting the care they need. If they are not, offer to connect them with resources.
  • Ask open-ended questions about how they are doing or feeling. Open-ended questions can’t be answered with just a “yes” or “no” answer; they create opportunities for people to fully express themselves and open the door for communication.
  • Be compassionate and respectful.
  • Stigma against mental illness and substance use may make your friend or loved one nervous about sharing. If it comes up, don’t avoid the topic. Allow them to share their experience in a non-judgmental environment.
  • If you are worried about their safety, you can speak to a trained counselor, free of charge. This service is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year through Colorado Crisis Services.

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