*A note to parents before reading this article: Unless a parent has previous experience with mental illness, their child could be exhibiting early signs of mental illness. At times it might be easy to “explain away” the behavior. There might be a tendency to try give a rational explanation for irrational behavior.
It can hardly be called denial if mental illness is not a part of a person’s collective experience. The thought of mental illness never occurs to them. As this article explains, it is imperative that those who have contact with young people become aware of mental illness signs and symptoms so they can act quickly.
This article is written by the following doctors: Dr. Rachel Waford, a psychologist and assistant professor at Emory University in Atlanta. She is also a private practitioner serving individuals with severe mental illness. Dr. Carina Iati, a psychologist at the Prevention and Recovery for Early Psychosis program in Boston. She is also a psychology instructor at Harvard Medical School and Bunker Hill Community College.
Historically, early signs of psychosis were considered a “death sentence” hinting at a terrible outcome. Fortunately, these early signs are now seen as a warning of a manageable and recoverable illness, similar to many other health issues.
Youth experiencing such difficulties are more likely to interact with teachers, campus police officers, other law enforcement, primary care doctors, guidance counselors, coaches, and peers than mental health clinicians. These individuals may have witnessed signs that concerned them and be viewed as a “helper.”
Fortunately, you don’t need an advanced degree to identify potential warning signs and risk factors for mental illness in young people. We would like to empower individuals who have a unique opportunity to assist in the earliest stages of psychosis to feel confident in doing so.
They should pay attention to that “gut feeling” that something is not quite right.
Early warning signs
Changes in mood or behavior that persist and impact functioning
Changes in school or work performance
Changes in family or peer relationships and interactions
Changes in self-care or hygiene
Evidence of psychotic symptoms such as talking to self or to others who are not present, seeing visuals or objects that are not really there, suspiciousness or paranoia, and disorganized thinking and behavior
We are not asking first responders to diagnose an issue; rather, we encourage people to help and intervene, no matter what the cause.
Below are some important issues we would like everyone in this unique helping position to consider:
Don’t be a victim of the “bystander effect” and assume someone else will help. The person may be thinking the same thing as you.
Use the “better safe than sorry” approach when considering assisting. If you are having a reaction to changes or behavior, chances are the young person needs some kind of assistance or support.
There are many right ways to help and only one wrong way; to do nothing at all.
Trying to help may not always work out perfectly, but initiating contact and offering support starts a very important dialogue. Whatever step you take is important.
Research into early intervention has shown what happens when the first signs of psychosis are acknowledged and treated as quickly as possible. Young people are more able to return quickly to school and work and renew previous relationships, are less likely to require re-hospitalization and are more capable of managing their symptoms.
A more detailed discussion of this topic and specific tools can be found in Dr. Waford’s and Dr. Iati’s recently published book, The Psychosis Response Guide: How to Help Young People in Psychiatric Crises.