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Parents: Spot warning signs of mental illness

The loss of a child is every parent’s worst nightmare.

Parents choose the right car seat, strap on bike helmets and cut finger foods into toddler-sized bits — all to keep their children safe. But when it comes to mental health, society often falls silent.

Suicide is the second leading cause of death in people ages 10 – 24, according to data compiled by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) from the Centers for Disease Control and the National Institute of Mental Health. Of young people who die by suicide, 90 percent are believed to have an underlying mental illness. Half of all cases of lifetime mental illness began by age 14.

Ken Dority, executive director of NAMI Greenville, said discussing mental illness and removing the stigma associated with it is an important starting point in combating youth suicide.

“We tend not to talk about this,” he said. “Lack of education and stigma are the two top reasons that mental health is kept at arm’s length. They are impediments to us identifying it early.”

Because mental illness is a diagnosis of observation — your pediatrician can’t perform a blood test to detect it — it is sometimes difficult to diagnose. Making parents aware of the warning signs can help.

“If you are noticing anything of an extreme nature, how often do symptoms appear?” Dority said. “Look at the length of symptoms. Anything lasting longer than two weeks is something to pay attention to. We don’t need parents over-diagnosing.”

Dority said parents should start with their child’s pediatrician, but they should move to a mental health specialist if needed. Schools can also be an important resource, especially in creating plans that can address anxiety and other conditions.

“Find out more information from as many sources as you can,” Dority said. “Read up on what you are looking at. Call our office and inquire about education classes.”

Education for parents, teachers and caregivers is key, according to Dority.

“One of the things that needs to be a part of this conversation is the role that stigma plays,” he said. “Helping to silence stigma is a real responsibility of parents for our young children.”

There is often a delay between the onset of symptoms and the start of treatment for mental illness — an average delay of 10 years that can be life threatening.

“If our child had signs of cancer, we would have them at the first available appointment,” Dority said. “We would beat down doors to get treatment.”

If you need help

Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or call 911. Other resources:

  • Greenville CRISISline: 864-271-8888
  • Teen CRISISline: 864-467-8336
  • Text CRISISline: Text CRISISline to 839863
  • NAMI Greenville:
  • NAMI Spartanburg:

Know the warning signs of mental illness

  • NAMI,, developed these lists of warning signs for mental illness and suicide.
  • Feeling sad or withdrawn for more than two weeks (crying regularly, feeling fatigued, feeling unmotivated)
  • Trying to harm or kill oneself or making plans to do so
  • Out of control, risk-taking behaviors that could harm self or others
  • Sudden, overwhelming fear for no reason, sometimes with a racing heart, physical discomfort or fast breathing
  • Not eating, throwing up or using laxatives to lose weight; significant weight loss or gain
  • Severe mood swings that cause problems in relationships
  • Repeated use of drugs or alcohol
  • Drastic changes in behavior, personality or sleeping habits 
  • Extreme difficulty in concentrating or staying still that can lead to failure in school
  • Intense worries or fears that get in the way of daily activities like hanging out with friends or going to classes

Warning signs of suicide

  • Threats or comments about killing themselves, also known as suicidal ideation 
  • Increased alcohol and drug use 
  • Aggressive behavior; a person who is feeling suicidal may experience higher levels of aggression and rage than they are used to 
  • Social withdrawal from friends, family and the community 
  • Dramatic mood swings, indicating that the person is not feeling stable and may feel suicidal
  • Preoccupation with talking, writing or thinking about death 
  • Impulsive or reckless behavior