Spotting the Risks, Seeing the Symptoms, and Offering Support

Talking about your own mental health is often difficult, even today when mental wellbeing is so high on the agenda. How do you approach someone and say, “I’m feeling really low; please help me”?

That’s a tough thing to do, so most people don’t. They put on a brave face, while inside they are all twisted and torn. It’s like being a duck. Cool and calm on the surface, while underneath the waterline their feet are paddling at a hundred miles an hour. Only in the wrong direction.

Yet we know that around one in four people will experience mental health problems every year in the UK, and one in six suffer a common mental health problem in any given week (Mind 2017).

We need to change our way of thinking. If we could only  recognise the signs of mental health issues, that would be a start. Maybe then we could consider how to help someone with their mental wellbeing.

Who is at risk of mental health problems?

When life is ticking along nicely, there is little fear of hitting a wall of depression. It’s when life takes unexpected turns that our minds start to play the cruellest tricks on us. A sudden illness. Loss of a job. The death of a loved one.

Pre-existing psychiatric disorders, like depression, clearly increase the risk of mental health issues. Here are a few other situations you should watch for in others:

·       Illness or health vulnerability

Especially pertinent over the last year and more, vulnerability to ill heath, or ill health itself, is difficult to cope with. Those with pre-existing conditions may feel the pressure more than others. People who have a sudden heart attack, or learn they have a condition that will not improve are also at risk.

·       Changes at work

When changes are made at work, they affect people. Such changes may include a change of boss, change of responsibilities, or change of working environment. It could be that a decades-old process is changed, or that the person is promoted or demoted, or asked to change teams.

At work, you should also pay attention to those who have high workloads and long hours.

·       Loss or impending loss of a loved one

The news of a friend or family member’s terminal illness or death can damage a person’s normal way of thinking. This is especially true if the relationship was close. Difficult emotions can stay with us for years, with remorse triggered by the simplest things – a smell, a song, or even a word or phrase.

·       Life changes

Major life changes can trigger mental health issues. Divorce. The repossession of a home. The loss of a custody battle. The loss of a job. A new baby. A child leaving for university. If you know of a person going through such change, then watch for the signs that it is affecting them adversely.

Recognising that life is taking its toll

Mental health is unlike most physical health conditions. There may be a list of common symptoms, but they are not common to everyone. This can make it difficult to be sure that a friend or colleague has mental health issues, but if he or she is experiencing any of the following you should stay alert to the possibility:

  • Sadness or tearful
  • Pessimistic about the future
  • Detachment from friends or colleagues
  • Loss of interest in hobbies
  • Overly irritable, or acting out of character
  • Less talkative than usual
  • Easily upset
  • Lacking energy
  • Taking unnecessary risks
  • Lacking focus
  • Disinterested in their own appearance and/or personal hygiene
  • Trouble with sleeping
  • Weight gain or loss
  • Forgetfulness
  • Eating more or less than usual
  • Increased consumption of alcohol
  • Talking about feeling of emptiness, worthlessness, death, or suicide

The more of these symptoms you notice, the more likely it is that your friend or colleague is suffering from a mental health issue such as anxiety or depression.

How do you help a friend through their mental health issues?

If your friend is experiencing several of these symptoms, it’s time to talk. But how should you approach them? Here are a few tips.

·       Open a conversation

Show your friend that you’re concerned for them by asking a question that shows you’ve noticed something isn’t quite right. For example:

  • “Hey, you’ve been quiet lately. Is everything okay?”
  • “You seem a little down recently, and you’ve said you’re constantly tired. Is there something on your mind?”

Your friend may find it difficult to talk to you. Don’t force the conversation. Let them know you care, and that you are ready to listen if they need to talk.

·       Listen

When your friend starts talking, don’t interrupt. Show empathy and understanding with your body language and your words. Ask questions to avoid misunderstanding. Make sure they know you care.

·       Avoid giving advice

Ask how you can help, but don’t give advice. You shouldn’t tell your friend to try harder, or pull their socks up, or ‘man up’. Such advice trivialises the condition, and betrays a lack of empathy and understanding.

Don’t seek to justify your friend’s mental health – it’s extremely personal. And don’t try to make your friend feel better by explaining how bad you’ve had it, or what a grim time someone else has had.

Finally, don’t tell your friend that this is something he or she will get over. It’s hard for a person who is suffering mental health issues to see a future when the present is overwhelming, or the past is proving difficult to move on from.

·       Maintain confidentiality

Your friend will be sensitive about their mental health. That’s why he or she hasn’t spoken about it before. Now trust has been placed in you. Don’t destroy that trust. Maintain confidentiality.

·       Help them find the professional support they need

You are there for your friend. Your support is crucial. But to improve mental health, professional counselling is often required. Encourage your friend to seek therapy. Offer to help review therapists and make a first appointment.

·       Continue with your support

Finally, just because your friend is seeing a counsellor does not mean your support is no longer needed. Quite the opposite.

There will be days when he or she crashes. There will be times when he or she wants to give a counselling session a miss. Remind him or her how useful the last session was, and how productive staying the course will prove to be.

It’s time to change our way of thinking

Look around you now. Whether you’re at work, in a café or bar, or on a train. If there are 20 people near you, it’s likely that three of them are suffering inside right now. Five of them will have a prolonged period of mental health issues this year. Yet it’s likely that none of them will seek the help of those closest to them.

So, it’s up to us to make that first move. But we don’t, do we? We’re nervous of getting it wrong, and alienating the person about whom we are concerned. So, we say nothing, and stand by watching while someone sinks into despair, depression, and possibly worse.

It’s time to change our way of thinking. To understand the risk factors associated with mental health, the signs to watch for, and then being brave enough to make the first move. Each one of us could save someone’s life. All we need to do is take that first step, and talk.

Where to get help for mental health problems

Help is available for those with mental health problems from many sources. These include:

Finally, if you know a friend or colleague that had been suffering with their mental health, keep an eye on them. Even if they seem fine, the cracks can still appear. Check in now and again. You may not inhabit the same world as them, but you could be the world of difference.