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11 Signs of a Psychiatric Disorder

New list aims to help identify problems earlier

Clinical Expert: Peter Jensen, MD

en Español

A group of mental health experts from around the country, alarmed at the number of children struggling with undiagnosed psychiatric disorders, has formulated a list of 11 simple signs that a child might have a mental illness.

The goal is to make it easier for parents, teachers, pediatricians, and others who work with children to know when they should take steps to get care for a child or adolescent. The list aims to help separate warning signs of illness from typical moodiness and occasional disruptive behavior like defiance, aggression, and impulsivity.

The warning signs for psychiatric illness are often differentiated from behavior that’s not problematic by how long the behavior lasts, whether it impacts a child’s functioning, or whether it affects other people.

The group, led by Mayo Clinic psychiatrist Peter Jensen, MD, interviewed some 6,000 families to hone the language that would be most helpful to parents. The list was tested against children with diagnosed psychiatric disorders, to see if it would have predicted their conditions. Two federal agencies, Center for Mental Health Services and National Institute of Mental Health, funded the project. Dr. Jensen is the president of the Resource for Advancing Children’s Health, the group that undertook the project.

Here are the 11 warning signs parents should watch for:

  • Feeling very sad or withdrawn for two or more weeks
  • Seriously trying to harm or kill themselves, or making plans to do so
  • Sudden overwhelming fear for no reason, sometimes with a racing heart or fast breathing
  • Involved in multiple fights, using a weapon, or wanting badly to hurt others
  • Severe, out-of-control behavior that can hurt themselves or others
  • Not eating, throwing up or using laxatives to make themselves lose weight
  • Intensive worries or fears that get in the way of daily activities
  • Extreme difficulty in concentrating or staying still that puts them in physical danger or causes school failure
  • Repeated use of drugs or alcohol
  • Severe mood swings that cause problems in relationships
  • Drastic changes in their behavior or personality
This article was last reviewed or updated on November 6, 2023.