Thursday, May 14, 2009

Early Onset Signs of Mental Illness © Megan Snider

It is impossible to say just what I mean!
But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen
“That is not it at all,
That is not what I meant, at all.”

--Eliot (The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock")

In the literary practice of giving credit where credit is due, I present you with a list of signs of the early onset of mental illness (in what I presume to be children) pulled from the Dr. Phil site. Some of the symptoms I deleted for redundancy issues.

The list seems fairly descriptive and pretty fair-handed. Mental illness is manifest in children-- beyond a doubt. My early experiences with Panic Disorder as a child led me to believe that my mind was somehow irrevocably damaged. I spent years trying to understand why I had the sensations I had. So, without a doubt, mental illness is present in children; yes! The particular problem I have with this list is that just because it is proactive, does not mean it is preventative.

Early onset signs of mental illness have their roots in childhood. But mental illness does not explode until someone reaches his or her mid-twenties. By the mid-twenties we see things such as dramatic breakdown in thought, concentration, lack of hygiene, inability to leave the house, disordered thought and speech, inability to concentrate and a host of other severe problems.

You may be able to read this list as a person with mental facilities that seem "normal". You can skim the list and say, "uh huh", "yes", and "of course" to many of these symptoms. You may even postulate as to why they occur. Let me take you through this list, one by one, and help you identify possibly why or how you or someone you love might feel this way.

Please keep in mind as I share some of my own personal experiences and beliefs, that mental illness is not set and defined as a uniform condition; it is experienced by a variety of different people in a variety of different ways. In fact, if anyone cares to share his or her own experiences, I would be more than pleased to hear them.

The key to this list is not to take these emotions, reactions, and responses and judge them-- but rather to try to understand them and make some sort of half-step towards acceptance, empathy and acknowledgement.

Remember that one of the key insights applied to mental illness on the sufferer's part is a "lack of insight". This means that the person truly is genuinly unaware and unable to control the thoughts and compulsions running wild in their head. They are increasingly introspective, but lack the ability to understand what they are observing in their own minds.

It becomes more and more difficult to seperate the self from the problem as mental illness stretches its hold over the brain. Just like losing eyesight, the person is totally unaware of how distorted their veiw of the world has become until their are given a new perspective. Try to keep the blame off the victim and instead pin it to the disease.

Withdrawing from friends and family/ Preferring to be alone
The onset of mental illness is much like a clock lodged in your head stuck on the count-down until your death. You begin to see life not as what its potential is, but what its reality is. What is the reality for someone who is afraid to leave his or her house? What is the reality for someone who hears voices or sees unusual things? What is the reality for someone who is beginning to see all of their hopes and dreams slowly coming to anything but fruition?

In a way, mental illness could be considered mental death because functions deemed “normal” cease. With this cessation, all that is left is torment. Physically speaking, the body dies when the brain stops regulating functions. In mental illness, this death is not literal, but symbolic. Perhaps it is better to deem that the spirit dies; the upright house of the soul withers and is twisted up and carried off by the wind.

Once you lose your hope, your ability to cope, your function, structure and access to a happy life, you lose life itself and begin to barricade yourself from friends and family. Besides, what are their chances of understanding anyhow?

Appearing depressed/ Lack of Motivation or Concentration
If someone appears to be depressed, it is generally a pretty good indication that they are. Retardation of speech, motor skills, reactions and expenditure of great effort in relation to little tasks are all simple indicators of the beginning of a black depression—not laziness as some suggest.

Increased anxiety or agitation/Moodiness Mistrustfulness or suspiciousness

Imagine that you do have a mental illness and you know it. Apparently, talking about Paranoid Schizophrenia in application to this headline is another matter entirely. So, let’s nix that for now. Just imagine you are mentally ill and you know it.

You’re the person that is stereotypically running around hacking off heads in CSI episodes; you’re the one shown on television babbling and blinking and ticking uncontrollably. You think knowing might help a little, but instead it makes everything else so much more difficult. What will people you respect think of you? What will people you love think about you? How will employers react?

Changes in personal hygiene
Your life is doomed and you know it. All the things that happen to you are not coincidence; this is your life and you’re damned to live it. Next comes the options: Shall I still do my hair up the way others like it or shall I let it go? Shall I change my shirt or maybe my pants? Let’s face it, you don’t want to get out of bed anymore—you don’t even want to wake up again. But you do. You wake up. You wake up to no point and no purpose except mind-numbing fear and accusations of failure—no matter if they are real or imagined—they sting just as much. You are unattractive, unproductive, and unimportant. You are a throw-away citizen.

Emotions that do not fit the situation
There are a variety of things going on here. In manias people generally feel a heightened mood that exceeds regular euphoria and feel that they can do most anything. In clinical depression people generally have a flat affect, not necessarily remorseful—though it could be— but rather numb. I also recall that a flat affect is a sign of schizophrenia. A variety of mood disorders could be lurking behind the scene of this diagnosis.

Vague speech / Speech sometimes doesn't make sense
I cannot explain to you how hard it is to organize thoughts. These thoughts may lend themselves to creativity, of course, but to get a handle on them is quite another matter. Imagine constant thought—constant thought to the point of helplessness. Looping memories, ideas, expressions in a never-ending circle are constantly scraping through the ceiling and basement of your mind. Now, imagine trying to pick out a few of these and say them aloud.

Unusual ideas or beliefs/Unusual experiences
Again, I cannot stress enough the “lack of insight” idea. The way a mentally ill person perceives the world when held in light beside that of how a “normal” person does makes for a quite startling comparison. The world is much more unknown, misunderstood, and frightening. People begin to fit in this category as well. As the acceptance of mental illness slowly meanders into one’s brain, one becomes naturally horrified that everyone can see one’s mental illness made manifest. Every action taken, every word spoken, every movement began opens the sufferer up to a new world of self doubt and loathing. How will people respond?

There is this tugging notion that perhaps people can see through the ill person and experiences can become strange. What is more difficult to explain than psychosis or depersonalization or derealization? Try writing in your diary about dissociation. It can’t be done effectively enough. The experiences someone with mental illness describes will sound unusual and hard to fathom. If delusions creep in and distort the thinking, then the belief system the ill person begins to develop will also begin to bend and fold at the edges.

© Megan Snider

Sources cited:
Read Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" (

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