When illness isn’t mental: The psychology of the thyroid


Parents are almost trained to notice these things.

A sudden change in school performance. A loss of interest in activities. Changes in temperament, including anger, irritability and depression. A teen who suddenly becomes withdrawn. Eating habits becoming different for no reason. Problems concentrating and forgetfulness.

These symptoms get noticed, because among others identified by the National Institute on Drug Addiction, they’re textbook symptoms of substance abuse in adolescents. The same set of symptoms also largely matches those for adolescent mental disorders.

It’s the kind of thing that puts fear into the hearts of parents. They see their children acting differently, their school performance suffering and wonder if the problem’s due to drugs or perhaps even a change in mental health.

What if neither is the problem?

The thyroid and mental health

The thyroid is an endocrine gland located at the back of the throat. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine’s MedlinePlus service, the thyroid secretes a variety of hormones involved in the day-to-day activities of the body – particularly those involved in metabolic processes like digestion.

However, the thyroid can also become ill. Although thyroid conditions are treatable with medication and management, the changes in hormone levels thyroid disorders cause can create psychological problems for patients, with symptoms similar to mental illness and even substance abuse.

In a paper published on the Thyroid Foundation of Canada’s website, Dr. A.G. Awad reports that people with an overactive thyroid can experience psychological effects including irritability, depression and sensitivity to noise. “In extreme cases, they may appear schizophrenic, losing touch with reality and becoming delirious or hallucinating,” writes Awad.

Meanwhile, an underactive thyroid can cause symptoms similar to severe depression, such as a loss of interest in activities, memory problems and paranoia. Awad also warns some psychiatric medications, like Lithium, can contribute to hypothyroidism as well.

Two of the conditions that affect the thyroid are often mistaken for mental health disorders, as they both have symptoms that closely mirror common mental illnesses such as anxiety and depressive disorders.


According to Mayo Clinic, hyperthyroidism is a condition caused by the thyroid gland producing too much of the hormone thyroxine, a hormone involved in everything from digestion to mental health. Hyperthyroidism can cause the body’s metabolism to rapidly accelerate, causing increased heartbeat, weight loss and sweating. Unfortunately, Mayo Clinic also warns hyperthyroidism’s symptoms can look very similar to those of other conditions, which makes diagnosis difficult. This is particularly true for some of its mental symptoms, including anxiety, difficulty sleeping, irritability and nervousness.

It’s not always hyperthyroidism itself which causes mental conditions – the British Thyroid Foundation states the changes in appearance the condition can cause – changes in weight, hair loss – can damage patient’s self-esteem, particularly in younger thyroid patients.

Graves’ disease is a particularly common form of hyperthyroidism – and also one hard to diagnose in children According to the Graves’ Disease and Thyroid Foundation, the disease occurs in 1 out of every 100,000 children and on average appears between age 12 and 13. Graves’ symptoms can be obscured by the normal hormonal changes in puberty, and often co-occurs with asthma and diabetes.


Conversely, hypothyroidism is a condition caused by an underactive thyroid gland – one which doesn’t produce enough hormones. A condition that occurs more often in women over 60, Mayo Clinic reports hypothyroidism can cause obesity and heart disease amongst other complications. The British Thyroid Foundation warns hypothyroidism can cause mental slowness, concentration difficulties and depression.

The importance of treatment

Any change in an adolescent’s habits, personality or behavior should be checked closely. Thyroid conditions are treatable, as are mental health and substance disorders. White River Academy is a therapeutic boarding school located in rural Utah for boys aged 12 to 17. Our staff of compassionate professionals will help your son reach his true potential. Contact our 24/7 helpline for more information.

About the author

Brian Moore is a staff writer and graphic designer. A 20-year veteran of the newspaper industry, he writes articles and creates graphics. Brian enjoys music, bicycling and playing the tuba, which’s he’s done with varying degrees of success for over 25 years.

Leave a Comment

Scroll to Top