Thu, May

The Long-Term Risks and Signs of Undiagnosed Mental Illness


MENTAL HEALTH AWARE - Every year, millions of Americans struggle with mental illness. In California specifically, over a million people are dealing with a mental disorder of some kind. At least a quarter of people will go through some kind of mental health struggle in a year, and more than half of all mental illnesses across the country go untreated.

Because various disorders can have similar symptoms and look different from person to person, many people may be living with a mental illness and not realize it. On the other hand, some of those struggling with anxiety, depression, or other conditions may not seek treatment for a host of reasons. It’s important to note, however, that living with an undiagnosed or untreated mental illness can have long-term effects on your overall health and well-being. 

Signs of Underlying Mental Illness

Your mental health not only affects your thoughts, emotions, and behavior, but it can also impact your physical health. A common indicator of anxiety or depression is unexplained chronic pain or illness. Your body can bear the brunt of any stressors or anxieties you’re dealing with, and you may feel back pain, upset stomach, muscle tension, or headaches that seem to have no cause. Mental illness can affect your physical health in the long term as well; chronic stress is linked to a higher risk of heart disease, stroke, and obesity. 

Other symptoms of an undiagnosed mental illness can vary from person to person, as everyone’s life and physical health are different. Mental health diagnoses are usually based on how long you have been experiencing symptoms, with some conditions appearing over a few weeks or months and other disorders–like bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and borderline personality disorder–developing over years. Some of these symptoms may include…

  • General feelings of sadness 
  • Extreme or frequent mood swings
  • Delusions, paranoia, or hallucinations (visual or auditory)
  • Inability to focus or concentrate
  • Significant changes in sleeping and eating patterns
  • Disengagement from friends, family, and interests
  • Inability to cope or keep up with daily responsibilities
  • Excessive alcohol or drug use
  • Thoughts of suicide

Why People Don’t Seek Treatment

Over half of people dealing with mental illness don’t seek help or professional treatment, and though some may not realize they have a mental illness, others may choose not to seek treatment for a variety of reasons. Some cultures or faiths do not recognize mental illness as real or part of our overall health, and that can influence some people to not seek treatment. On the other hand, some people don’t believe mental health treatment works.

A person may choose not to seek professional help for a mental illness out of fear of judgment, or perhaps they are afraid of what they may learn about themselves or their past through treatment. Self-medicating is also common in people with undiagnosed or untreated mental illness, which can lead to problems with substances or addiction. Other people with a mental illness may not believe anything is wrong or want to admit they need help, or they would rather “deal with it” themselves. 

Why You Should Seek Treatment

Even though most mental disorders aren’t entirely curable, seeking treatment can minimize your symptoms and improve your condition significantly. From anxiety and substance abuse to conditions like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, treatment is often flexible and adapted to your needs, symptoms, and lifestyle. Seeking help might mean talking with your primary healthcare provider, entering an inpatient rehabilitation program, or trying different kinds of outpatient therapies. 

Ultimately, when left undiagnosed or untreated, mental illness can have long-term effects on your health and significantly increase your risk of homelessness, incarceration, or suicide. Reaching out for help when you’re struggling can be both a sign of strength and a life-changing decision. 


(Rinn Norman is an editor, writer, and Awareness Advocate at LiveAnotherDay.org. You can also find her teaching freshman composition at Kennesaw State University or tending to her houseplants.)