The Hidden Symptoms of Mental Illness

You may not know it, but approximately 1 in 5 U.S. you meet are struggling with mental illness. Some of those people have mild symptoms and you may not even know they have a mental illness. Then there are those who have more severe symptoms and are typically more visible.

In general, all mental health disorders share the same categories of symptoms and warning signs. These can include:

  • Sleep or appetite changes
  • Mood changes
  • Withdrawal
  • Drop in functioning
  • Problems thinking
  • Increased sensitivity
  • Apathy
  • Feeling disconnected
  • Illogical thinking
  • Nervousness
  • Unusual behavior

Every mental illness will likely have a combination of the above categorizations of symptoms, and the above can be early warning signs of undiagnosed mental illness. The ones highlighted in italics are symptoms I personally struggle with fairly regularly between my diagnoses of PTSD and Bipolar Disorder II.

You might be wondering what about the above is hidden, as the title suggests. If you think about the above symptoms from the perspective of a friend or family member, would you recognize that your friend or adult child who doesn’t live with you isn’t sleeping or eating properly? Would you notice that a classmate is feeling disconnected from others or feeling nervous? Would you know that they aren’t cleaning their house?

The unfortunate and frightening truth of mental illness is that people don’t always know you’re struggling, and if you’re the type of person who never asks for help, they will continue thinking everything is ok. We still have a lot of stigma in the world surrounding discussing of mental illness. We still view people who struggle with depression or anxiety as being weak. Most people can’t understand what it’s like because they have never experienced it themselves.

As an anecdote to this topic, I want to share an experience I had recently. Last year (2020), my brother sent me a very generous gift card to a really nice vegan restaurant in Seattle called Plum Bistro. My birthday is February 26th and the gift card came a little late in the mail, so my partner and I went to another restaurant instead. A month or so later, the entire city was shut down due to COVID so I held onto the card hoping we could go this year. Unfortunately, things are still pretty unsafe, so we ordered from them and went to pick up instead. Plum Bistro is in a very busy neighborhood and I wasn’t expecting the number of people around me. From the moment I left my car, I felt like I was surrounded by threats. At one point, I opted to stand in the street next to the curb just to avoid people on the sidewalk. When I finally found the entrance and went inside, I was surrounded by maskless people at their tables, happily living their lives like it wasn’t an issue. Here’s where things get pathological for me – my reaction to this was anger and intense fear. I was hugging myself, standing in the middle of the room, feeling like there was nowhere safe to be. I was panicking and frustrated with the waitstaff because the order wasn’t ready. I had money for a tip in my hand that I was flicking over and over again trying to focus on something else. The level of anxiety I felt and the amount of downtime I needed afterwards to calm down isn’t normal but because I have PTSD, my fear response to average situations is very high. What’s really unfortunate here is that many people might see me and think I’m just being unreasonable and grumpy. They see me being rude or acting uptight and might think I’m overreacting, on drugs, or both. They don’t know the years of my childhood that contributed to my having PTSD and what I have to deal with on a daily basis.

The thing I really want you to take away from this post is that mental illness doesn’t look the same for everyone. We all struggle in different ways. More importantly, sometimes our symptoms are hidden or misunderstood. What appears to be grumpiness could be PTSD or Bipolar Disorder, or perhaps what appears to be a happy person could be a depressed person hiding their sadness from the world. Mental illness isn’t always obvious and we need to remember that when we’re trying to understand someone’s behavior. Not everyone will experience mental illness the same way, and people with the same diagnoses may present symptoms differently. Be patient, kind, and compassionate to others because you never know what someone else is going through.

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