Speak Up to Mental Illness

Northwestern Medicine
Psychiatry and Psychology April 20, 2012

Subtle personality changes are often the earliest symptoms of major mental illness, making it easy for initial warning signs to be missed, or even ignored. But experts warn that waiting until someone is so ill that the psychological sickness is unmistakable can be detrimental and can lead to long-term health concerns. In an effort to end the waiting game, Northwestern Medicine® behavioral health experts from the Stone Institute of Psychiatry at Northwestern Memorial Hospital and Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine have launched First Contact, a program aimed at preventing the onset of long-term disability due to severe mental illness by increasing awareness of signs and symptoms and encouraging people to seek help earlier.

“Oftentimes, waiting is tragic,” says Will Cronenwett, MD, a psychiatrist at Northwestern Memorial and instructor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “The first time subtle changes emerge is the best time to get an evaluation. By the time someone is so ill that it’s resulted in their first hospitalization, they’ve already started to fall away from the trajectory that their life would have taken.”

Cronenwett notes that subtle changes can include odd thoughts, changes in mood, behavior or personality. Depression and isolation can also be a sign, as well as strange experiences like hearing things that other people can't hear. First Contact focuses on identifying the first stages of mental illness, even before a definite diagnosis is made. This is possible because mental illnesses like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder have very similar biological profiles, so the symptoms can be the same. When warning signs appear, diagnosis is not necessary to begin early treatment that is very low risk, such as teaching people about psychiatric wellness and how to monitor themselves for signs of illness.

If someone is concerned about mental illness in a family member, they can call Northwestern's Stone Institute for more information. Stone offers inpatient and outpatient care for adults, as well as outpatient care for adolescents ages 12–18 through its Warren Wright Adolescent Center. The evaluation might include psychological testing in addition to a standard psychiatric interview. Treatment services are available for all mental health conditions, including substance abuse, depression and ADHD.

“Whatever age in life the illness begins to strike, we can treat adolescents or adults to prevent disability and keep them on track with the rest of their lives,” said Cronenwett.

Learn more information about psychiatric care at Northwestern Memorial or to make an appointment please call 312-926-0779.

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