Early Warning Signs of Mental Health Decline

October is mental health month, and I am in the thick of Mental Health First Aid training. If you haven’t heard of this, it’s a fabulous course that equips you with some basic skills to more easily identify and directly help people who are struggling with mental health.

In celebration of this important month, I decided to share some of the common early warning signs of mental health decline.

In this episode, we’ll cover

* Physical and Physiological Signs of Stress and Mental Health Decline
* Behavioural Signs
* Filling the Gaps

A Few Facts

Let’s start with a few basic facts.

Mental health challenges affect your brain, your body and your behaviour.

Chronic stress is a precursor to mental health conditions. It can affect your brain, shrinking the hippocampus, and subsequently decreasing your memory, mood and learning ability.

The early warning signs and symptoms of chronic stress and subsequent mental health decline may be subtle and highly individualised.

They may not be detected or reported until a crisis state is reached, and in that sense, it can be difficult to identify people who are at risk (1) .

Physical and Physiological Signs of Stress and Mental Health Decline

  • Tiring more easily
  • Being tired all the time
  • Feeling sick and run down
  • Headaches
  • Persistent/resistant muscle aches and pains
  • Increased or decreased reaction times
  • Changes to sleeping patterns
  • Weight loss or gain
  • Dishevelled appearance
  • Gastro-intestinal issues.

Behavioural Signs

Behaviours associated with mental health concerns include:

  • Not getting things done
  • Unusual emotional responses
  • Inappropriate complaints about lack of management support
  • Inappropriate focus on fair treatment issues
  • Inappropriate complaints about not coping with workload
  • Withdrawing from colleagues
  • Reduced participation in work activities
  • Increased consumption of caffeine, alcohol, cigarettes and/or sedatives
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Indecisiveness
  • Difficulty with memory
  • Loss of confidence
  • Unplanned absences
  • Conflict with others
  • Inappropriate use of grievance procedures
  • Increased errors and/or accidents.

Many of these are ‘invisible’, may be easily mistaken for other conditions, or could be interpreted as non-significant, single events. It is only in a face-to-face (or virtual) interview with a mental health professional, who looks at a cluster of symptoms, that mental health concerns may be assessed and properly diagnosed.

Outside of a clinical setting, or when workers are remote, it is difficult for peers, managers, and clients (or for the individual themselves) to identify mental health risks.

The stigma around reporting mental health issues is part of the issue, and this is indicated by the underuse of employee assistance programs (EAPs).

We know that 20% of people of working age will experience a mental health concern in any given year, yet typically only 5% of employees (across all sectors) access EAPs for mental health concerns[4],[5].

For these reasons, mental health diagnosis is often reactive and comes too late, when things are at a crisis point.

Filling the Gaps

It can be tricky to know what to do when someone you know or love has these sorts of signs or symptoms.

The best thing you can do is let them know tactfully, and directly, that you have noticed a change in their behaviour, and to ask how they are feeling.

Better still, enrol for the Mental Health First Aid course. It’ll equip you with skills to better deal with your clients, your friends, family or coworkers.


Mental health can decline secretly and silently, affecting your brain, your body and your behaviour. Chronic stress is a precursor to mental health conditions.

The journey from not coping with stress to mental health decline can be subtle and highly individualised, and hard to see until it’s too late.

Today, I  described some of those signs and symptoms and talked about mental health first aid, a course that can equip you with the skills to identify mental health concerns early on and help people in need to take charge and get back on track more easily.

[1] https://returntowork.workplace-mentalhealth.net.au/

[2] https://mhfa.com.au/

[3] Robert M. Sapolsky. Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers: An Updated Guide To Stress, Stress Related Diseases, and Coping. 3rd Rev Kindle, 2004. W. H. Freeman ASIN B0037NX018

[4] https://www.pwc.com.au/about-us/insights/non-executive-directors/mental-health.html

[5] https://www.businessfirstmagazine.com.au/finding-health-and-wellbeing-in-the-workplace/16285/

[6] https://www.ihealthcareanalyst.com/government-initiatives-public-awareness-propel-preventive-health-care-technologies-services-market/

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