Do signs of mental illness first appear in young adults?

Dr. Kristine Goto is the Director of Behavioral Science in the Family Medicine Residency at Banner – University Medical Center Phoenix.

Question: I've heard that symptoms of mental illness often appear in people in their early 20s. Is this true? What are the warning signs of mental illness to look for in young adults?

Answer: Many Americans deal with mental health issues at one point or another, which can affect the way an individual thinks, feel, and behaves. Estimates suggest that about 25 percent of Americans suffer from some diagnosable mental disorder each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Mental health issues can develop into mental illness when symptoms persist or worsen in a manner that affects a person’s ability to live or function as he or she normally would.

Mental illness describes an array of conditions, such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, addictive behavior, and eating disorders, among others. Although many people experience mental health concerns, serious mental illness affects a smaller segment of the population, roughly 1 in 17 people or 6 percent, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

Believed to be caused by a variety of genetic and environmental factors, mental illness can begin to show itself at any age, from early childhood to late adulthood. However, statistics show that the symptoms or warning signs of certain mental illnesses – such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and major depressive disorder – often appear in young adults in their late teens to mid-20s.

Regardless of when or why symptoms appear, it’s important to be able to recognize warning signs so treatment can begin as soon as possible. Symptoms vary based on the individual, as well as type and severity of the disorder. Still, according to the American Psychiatric Association, typical warning signs include, but are not limited to: social withdrawal, loss of interest or engagement in activities once enjoyed, drastic mood swings, confused thoughts or lack of concentration, detachment from people or surroundings, excessive worry or anxiety, dramatic changes to sleep or eating patterns, peculiar or exaggerated behavior, difficulty coping with everyday problems, substance abuse, and suicidal thoughts.

If you or someone you know is experiencing any of these warning signs or have concerns, talk with your healthcare provider or a behavioral health expert. Many resources and options are available to help determine what may be causing these symptoms and the best course of treatment.

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