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May is Mental Health Awareness: Learn how to recognize signs, help

Everyone knows that if you have a sore throat or aching back, you go to the doctor to find out what’s wrong and to seek treatment that will lead to a quick recovery. When someone is suffering from a mental illness, however, the approach does not always seem so straightforward.

During the course of their lifetimes, one in four Americans will be affected by a mental health condition. That’s approximately 61.5 million people each year. And while stress, anxiety, depression and other mental health challenges are widespread – and very real – illnesses afflicting so many people, research suggests that only about one in three of them is likely to pursue treatment. Often it takes the gentle nudge of a friend or loved one to put them on the path to recovery.

Many people with mental health concerns might not realize the severity of their condition, and continue living with their symptoms because they don’t perceive it as a problem that needs to be addressed. Others may recognize that they need help, but may not know how to seek a solution or may be afraid of negative perceptions.

These misconceptions and stigma commonly surround mental health issues and why it’s so critical that families and friends step in and encourage their loved ones to get professional support when it’s needed.

Treatments for mental illnesses are highly effective, and early intervention is the key to helping people start working towards recovery so they can return to living healthy, self-directed lives.

Recognizing a Condition

Millions of people in the U.S. have family members or friends who suffer from mental illnesses and many more are undiagnosed. Here are some signs that may indicate a loved one needs help:

• Unusual or irregular behavior. It is important to trust your instincts if you notice behavior that scares you, like a sudden or particularly aggressive temper, or behavior that seems out of the ordinary for that person. For example, someone could be drinking more than usual or abandoning usual daily tasks and routines, such as getting to work on time or basic hygiene practices.

• Problems thinking. For instance, if a person becomes disoriented, especially forgetful, or appears to hear sounds or see sights that others do not.

• Overly intense feelings. This could be anxiety about seemingly mundane activities like leaving the house. 

• Difficulty interacting with others. This encompasses problems at work/school or among family members and friends.

• A traumatic experience. If a person recently experienced a death, accident or other major life-altering occurrence, it can have a serious impact on their mental health.

Starting the Conversation

If you think someone in your life may need help addressing a mental health issue, you may want to speak with them about it.

The following are tips to help you start that conversation and things to keep in mind as you talk:

• Show that you are concerned in a way that is not confrontational or judgmental. Let the person know that you care about them, and you want to check in because you’re concerned about recent changes in behavior that you’ve noticed.

• Keep questions simple. Ask how the person is doing, when they began experiencing these feelings, and how you can help provide support. At this point it may be beneficial to ask if the person has thought about seeking help.

• Offer reassurance and hope. Let the person know that they are not alone, and that you are here to support them in actively seeking treatment and support to help change the way they feel.

• Avoid phrases that could sound dismissive or accusatory. Although you may not understand what the person is feeling, it is important to only express your unwavering support.

For information about helping those you care about obtain treatment and support for a mental health condition, visit Remember that mental health issues impact people from all walks of life regardless of age, gender, ethnicity or socioeconomic level. The good news is that resources are available to help address the problem and make a successful recovery.

By  Dr. Dennis Woody, Clinical Director for Optum Idaho, .


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