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The warning signs of an emerging mental illness


Young people go through so many changes it can be challenging for parents to know difference between ‘normal’ behaviour and the signs of emerging mental illness.

With suicide the number one cause of death for young people in Australia, it’s important that parents understand the warning signs and know how to seek help.

Changes in behaviour and mood can be key indicators that a young person is struggling to cope, said Vikki Ryall, headspace head of Direct Clinical Services.

“General moodiness and feeling down, tense, angry are all normal emotions for young people to experience,” Ms Ryall said.

“Look out for changes that persist over weeks and weeks rather than a couple of days, and changes that are not obviously related to a one-off stressful event, such as an exam.”

Warning signs to look out for in young people include:

  • not enjoying or not wanting to be involved in things they normally enjoy
  • changes in appetite and/or sleeping patterns
  • being easily irritated or angry for no reason
  • a drop in performance at school, TAFE, university or work
  • risky behaviour that they would usually avoid, such as taking drugs or drinking too much alcohol
  • experiencing difficulties with their concentration
  • seeming unusually stressed, worried, down or crying for no reason
  • expressing negative, distressing, bizarre or unusual thoughts.

“As a parent, if you think something is wrong, it’s important to keep communication open, show empathy and be non-judgemental,” Ms Ryall said.

“Broaching the issue can be difficult. Try to start a conversation by talking about the change you have noticed. It’s a difficult conversation so it might take a few goes but the key is to be persistent in a gentle way.

“Be available without being intrusive or pushy, take an interest in your child’s activities and encourage them to talk about what is happening in their life.”

For some people, it’s easier to talk during a shared activity, such as a walk or drive, so the conversation is not too confrontational.

Often young people do not want any help. They might be concerned about what their friends will think or worry about what will happen once they attend a counselling session.

“It’s especially challenging and distressing for parents if a young person doesn’t want help but clearly needs some additional support,” Ms Ryall said.

“When this happens, it’s important for parents to understand why the young person is reluctant and try to find a way of seeking help that works for them.”

Parents can learn about services available in their local area by having a one-on-one discussion with GP, touching base with their child’s year-level coordinator or welfare coordinator, or visiting a headspace centre.   

“headspace, the youth mental health foundation, has centres around the nation where people aged 12-25 and their families can seek support face-to-face,” Ms Ryall said.

“If that doesn’t work for your family, we offer webchat, telephone and email counselling through eheadspace , which can be a great entry point for people who need help but don’t feel comfortable accessing a more traditional service.”

If a parent is unable to get their child to open up, it may be appropriate to involve other family or friends they trust talk to them about the difficulties.

“Parents don’t have to work it all out at once. The important thing is to recognise is that the person you care about is having some difficulties, that’s a start. Then take the next step and think about how to get them help, remembering you don’t have to do that alone.”