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The warning signs of mental illness and addiction

  • June 30, 2016
A UAB psychologist discusses addiction and recognizing the symptoms of mental illness in adults and children.

manzielCredit: Cleveland Browns/Olympic GamesThe National Institute of Mental Health says one in five adults suffers from a diagnosable mental disorder, affecting more than 43 million people in a given year, an issue highlighted recently by the publicized struggles of prominent athletes like NFL quarterback Johnny Manziel and Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps.

Josh Klapow, Ph.D., clinical psychologist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, discusses the impact of mental health problems, including addiction and dementia.

Phelps, Klapow says, faced many challenges beyond addiction while in rehabilitation, including longstanding anxiety among other fears, and Manziel’s continued downward spiral presents more problems for his path to recovery.

“The problems these two athletes face are representative of some of the problems the general public faces,” Klapow said. “People who experience mental illness can face problems including addiction, depression, anxiety, anger control, personality disorders and dementia. Many of these conditions can be effectively managed. Even conditions like dementia for which a cure is not available, can be managed to improve a person’s quality of life.”

Early detection is critical for all of these mental conditions. Klapow provides key warning signs of mental illness in adults:

  • Personality change
  • Inability to cope with problems
  • Excessive anxiety
  • Prolonged depression
  • Extreme highs and lows
  • Abuse of alcohol or drugs
  • Marked changes in eating or sleeping
  • Excessive anger or violence

Warning signs in kids can be more tricky. However, Klapow offers warning signs of mental illness in children that deserve immediate attention:

  • The child mutilates him- or herself or animals in some way, such as cutting or scarring, pulling out hair, biting fingernails until nail beds bleed
  • Eating habits change to the point that weight is affected by over- or under-eating
  • The child is using alcohol or other drugs
  • The adoption of ritualistic behaviors
  • Violence toward others
  • The child talks about suicide

“Children do not talk idly about suicide to get attention,” Klapow said. “Once they have begun to discuss it, more than likely, they have begun to plan a way to do it.”

Mental illness is like any other illness — recognize the symptoms and seek medical attention.

“If you or someone you know is exhibiting these symptoms, absolutely get them checked out by a pediatrician or physician,” Klapow said. “It’s important to remember that having a mental or emotional problem does not necessarily mean you will become violent, but paying attention to our mental health is a critical healthy habit.”