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Onset of Mental Illness:First Signs and Symptoms in Young Adults

You may think that once you’re out of high school, you’re finished growing up. Physically, you’re probably as tall as you will ever get, and from this point forward, you may remain the same overall size throughout much of your adult life.


Whether you head off to college or out to make your own way in the world, you will likely gain a great deal of independence at this point in life, moving away from your parents and beginning to take care of yourself. While you still have a lot to learn, you probably feel like the development process is over.

Mentally, however, as a young adult, you’re still not fully grown. Young adults, aged 18 to 29, are still experiencing cognitive development, and this is one of the reasons why mental illness can present at this time of life.

Brain Development for Young Adults

Most people are familiar with the developmental stage of adolescence. The independence of relying more on peers than on parents for the first time, the angst of finding one’s own identity while belonging to a social group, and the inhibitions and poor decision-making are legendary parts of the teen years.

What most people don’t realize, however, is that this phase of brain development does not stop at age 18. The part of the brain that controls impulses and plans and organizes behavior to reach a goal will continue to develop into the mid-twenties. For most people, at age 18, this growth process is only half over.

The brains of adolescents have heightened reward systems that also remain active several years beyond their eighteenth birthday. This increased sensitivity is what drives adolescents to be highly emotional and incredibly sensitive to peer pressure. Throughout their twenties, they continue to seek out new, potentially pleasurable experiences without regard for the risks.

The changes that take place in the brain during the early twenties effect how new experiences and new pieces of information are synthesized. This brain growth tends to coincide with a loosening of parental controls, and possibly the freedom of attending college. The types of experiences, both good and bad, a young adult encounters can significantly shape brain development in this stage, potentially presenting as mental illness.

First Signs of Mental Illness in Young Adults

Mental illness encompasses a wide variety of disorders that exist on a severity continuum. Some can be temporary responses to crisis or other experiences, while others are chronic conditions. Mental illnesses have various causes and triggers. The stigma of mental illness in this country is fading as more and more people discover they have some sort of mental illness, and that their lives can be improved by treatment.

Common Mental Health Disorders

Mental illnesses are generally grouped into these categories:

  • Eating Disorders (anorexia, bulemia, binge eating)

  • Personality Disorders (antisocial, paranoia, borderline personality disorder)

  • Addiction (alcohol, opioids, tobacco)

  • Mood Disorders (major depressive disorder, bipolar disorders, cyclothymia)

  • Thought Disorders (schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, delusional)

  • Anxiety Disorders (social anxiety, phobias, generalized anxiety)

  • Developmental Disorders (autism spectrum disorders, ADHD)

While some of these mental illnesses can present and be diagnosed in childhood, many cannot be diagnosed until adolescence or even later. Personality disorders, for example, can not be confirmed until the personality is more fully formed. Addiction does not usually develop in childhood, because adults control the substances children have access to. Eating disorders also tend to develop during adolescence or later, because that’s when you gain full control of your eating habits.

Young adults are at a particularly vulnerable time in their development, which might explain why one out of every five is affected by mental illness. Mental illnesses that commonly present in young adults include:

Young adults are completing a transition in their mental state that is marked by heightened emotions and turmoil. When you add the sort of changes they are likely going through in their lives at the same time, it’s easy to see why mental illness may present at this time.

In their early twenties, most people leave their parents’ house for the first time to go to college or get their first apartment. They are under increased pressure to succeed academically, financially and socially. Some move back home after college, while others move away from families and support systems to begin new jobs. All of this change, while exciting, is definitely stressful. Given the right conditions, stress can trigger mental illness.

Mental Illness in College Students

College brings with it a unique brand of stress. There are academic challenges, increased responsibilities and new living arrangements. That’s a lot of transition for some people to manage. Access and acceptance of drugs and alcohol make up part of the college social experience, and a new social scene to adjust to.

According to a recent report on mental health problems in college students, over 20% of college students in 2013 were diagnosed or treated for mental illness. The number of college students suffering from mental illness is believed to be much higher, since approximately 40% of those affected do not get treatment. At least 80% of college students surveyed felt overwhelmed by their responsibilities, and for 50%, their anxiety caused them to struggle academically.

The directors of college campus counseling centers confirm that significant mental health issues are growing among college students. Campus counselors suggest that the number of students they see with severe mental illness increases noticeably each year.

In a recent survey of graduate students at one California university, 45% reported experiencing emotional and stress-related problems significant enough to affect their academic work. An annual survey conducted on a larger sampling across the country revealed that 30% of college freshman frequently feel overwhelmed. The number of female college freshman experiencing this feeling has almost doubled since 1985.

Studies show that the rates of reported anxiety and depression among college students are up in recent decades. Almost one third of students report experiencing an anxiety or depression disorder during their college career. In 2013, 27% of male students and 33% of female students reported feeling so depressed that it was hard to function. Data collected on mental illnesses in college students since the 1980s shows a trending increase in reported levels of stress, anxiety and depression.

Managing Symptoms of Mental Illness in Young Adults

If you’re a parent, you might tend to feel helpless once your children have moved out or gone off to college. You can no longer protect them from many of the dangers in the world. When it comes to mental illness, though, you can make a big difference by recognizing the signs and knowing when to seek help for your child.

Symptoms of mental illness in young adults include:

  • Anger

  • Substance abuse

  • Isolation, or being “a loner”

  • Antisocial behavior

  • Delusions

  • Confused thinking

  • mood swings

  • Hallucinations

  • Suicidal thoughts

  • Excessive anxiety

  • Unexplained physical ailments

  • Changes in sleep patterns – staying up all night or sleeping all day

  • Changes in appetite or diet

  • Impulsive behavior – particularly in terms of travel, spending money, or sexual relationships

A lot of these signs may seem like normal parts of your teen or young adult’s personality. Often, young adults exhibit these behaviors as a natural part of the transition their brains and lives are going through. But as a parent, you know your child better than anyone. If you notice him or her exhibiting behaviors that are unusual, it may be worth a conversation.

Only a qualified healthcare provider can truly diagnose a mental illness, but you may be able to identify some warning signs and involve a professional sooner rather than later. One of the problems with detecting a mental issue is that the person experiencing it may not be helpful to you. They may not notice the warning signs themselves, or they may want to hide them rather than face the problem and get help.

Ignoring the signs of mental illness is one of the worst things you can do. If your college-aged child is exhibiting unusual behavior, do not hesitate to talk with them about it. There’s no shame in suspecting the behavior could be a sign of a mental illness. Getting professional advice will calm your fears and help you develop a treatment strategy, if one is needed.

Mental illness in young adults can often be treated more effectively when it’s identified early. With some professional guidance, conditions like depression and anxiety that are triggered by the increased stress of college life can be managed. But you need a professional to diagnose the condition and prepare a strategy for treatment. If there is a more serious underlying condition, a mental health professional can help you deal with that, as well.

Treatment Options for Young Adults with Mental Illness

Many people are afraid that there is no treatment for whatever mental illness they may have, so they try to hide the symptoms and pretend nothing is wrong. Unfortunately, a lot of misinformation about mental illness is distributed through the media.

In reality, mental illnesses can be treated or managed with evidence-based methods. A combination of behavior therapies and medication can help people with a variety of mental disorders live happy lives as productive members of society. You probably have no idea which of the people around you is recovering from or living with a mental illness.

Since young adults are still developing parts of their brains, however, diagnosing mental illness early, and treating it effectively, can improve the chances of a good outcome. Diseases like addiction and depression, both common in young adults, can compound over time. These disorders don’t usually resolve on their own once they start. Professional help is needed.

Treatment options for these and other mental illnesses are more abundant today than they were decades ago. There is a range of treatment modalities that can be used alone or in combination to address mental illnesses of all kinds. Treatment options range from outpatient therapy for people with some skills already in place to manage their symptoms, to inpatient hospitalization for individuals who are in crisis.

An option in the middle is residential psychiatric treatment. A typically stay in an acute inpatient psychiatric facility or hospital is typically only a few weeks. After hospital-ization, residential treatment is a good option for young adults who still need time and support to adjust to new medications, learn about their symptoms, and practice skills to effectively cope with stress and live independently. A young adult might participate in a residential mental health program for a few weeks, up to a few months. After residential treatment, young adults can continue with their lives, maintaining their mental health through outpatient therapy and self-care.

Some residential treatment programs offer, a holistic approach in addition to traditional medication management and behavior therapy. Not only can the program address your psychiatric issues through traditional medical approaches, but it can also use diet, exercise, recreation and the arts to wrap around all aspects of your life. Approaching treatment for mental illness in a holistic way has shown better outcomes.

In a residential care facility, you get to step away from your regular life for a while. This gives you a chance to heal and grow while suspending your outside responsibilities — until you’re ready to do so. In many cases, young adults develop mental illnesses as a result of their environment. Taking them out of that environment makes it easier for them to heal, and then they learn strategies for coping before transitioning back to their regular lives.

In a residential treatment facility, you get to work with professionals and other people who are struggling with the same types of issues you are. There is a comfort in knowing that you’re not the only one who developed a mental illness as a young adult. Living and counseling with others actually makes the rehabilitation program stronger, and the camaraderie of people who know what you’re going through is very supportive.

This article continues with information about treatment modalities.

To read the article in full, search: Onset of Mental Illness in Children.

For information on residential treatment at Skyland Trail, visit: https://www.skylandtrail.org/


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