Spotting Signs: Identifying mental health struggle in others

Original article at The Almost Psychologist

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Earlier this week I posted about the workshop I attended on mental health in students, where we discussed the distinction between mental health difficulties and mental wellbeing and how they make up our overall mental state. Now, when mental state is poor, it can impact a person’s functioning and will often manifest in hints and signs. Spotting these signs, both major and minor, in oneself or ones’ peers can be crucial for improving the situation.

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Some of the potential stressors

Why the situation happens in the first place is not a simple question. There are genetic tendencies for mental health problems but there is also the impact of external influences, known as stressors. The list of potential stressors is infinite and all of them have the ability to impact your mental health.

But you can spot signs of reduced mental health and wellbeing in others, and in yourself if you’re truly that introspective. As the workshop was designed for a lay audience some of these signs may seem obvious but you’d be surprised how many basic observations we miss because we don’t consider what to look for.

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Appearance is the most up front giveaway of mental state, since how we dress and display our bodies acts as a physical reflection of what’s going on in our minds. A general disregard for appearance or drastic change in style or attire may be indicative of internal conflict. Is the person showering regularly? Is their hair brushed? Face washed? Are their clothes clean? Are they wearing matching socks? Have they been wearing the exact same outfit for days on end? These are only a fraction of the questions that can be asked regarding appearance and though naturally concerning in those who have been avidly conscious of their appearance in the past, even the sloppiest individual may grow worse if undergoing mental stress.

For more severe situations it can be crucial to look for what may be signs of self harm, such as recently formed bruises, cuts or burns. Despite cliches, these don’t have be across the wrists as not every person who self harms is suicidal. These injuries could be higher up on the arm, on the legs or elsewhere on the body. It can also be helpful to consider hair loss, especially if someone is showing bald patches at an alarming rate, or nails bitten down to the beds, possibly to the point of bleeding.

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Next is speech patterns, which are incredibly revealing, in their tone and nature. Are they talking irregularly fast? Excessively slow? Are they slurring? Do they sound angrier all the time or overexcited? Are they stammering, stuttering or lisping? Are they shouting often? Or resorting to whispering more? And then there’s the content of the speech to consider: Have they been cursing a lot more? Lying? Discussing morbid imaginings or sadistic endeavors? Do they speak wistfully of what could have been, of regrets or unfulfilled desires? Or are they overly optimistic? Are their views hitting extremes all of a sudden?

In particular, suicidal individuals have been known to say what may be “final words” to those closest to them- not an outright declaration, that “this is goodbye”, but perhaps an out of the blue acknowledgement akin to “You’ve always been a good friend”, “I’ll never forget that”, or “It’s going to stop hurting very soon”. Such phrases must be taken into context with a person’s given situation and other revealing signs.

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There are tell-tale signs such as an extended bought of crying or oppressive lethargy but clues also lie in subtle behaviour. Ones eating and sleeping habits and attitudes towards careers, hobbies and duties are examples of behaviour that should be accounted for. Impulsive or reckless actions from a normally conscientious person would be cause for concern, as would an early riser sleeping in more frequently. Not engaging in the activities that usually make one enthusiastic is a significant indicator. The same applies for social interactions and the type of company one keeps. An extrovert in isolation and cutting off the people closest to them is as alarming as an introvert befriending everyone in sight, engaging in superficial relationships.

Since every individual’s personality and capacity for social interaction differs we are our own baselines- it’s not about comparing one person’s behaviour to another’s but comparing their own behaviour to what it used to be. It’s a sudden deviation from the norm or engaging in an extreme that may indicate a mental health struggle.

Overall, a sign alone would not warrant an intervention and in the same way it is not likely someone will sporadically quit their job to join a knife-wielding gang. The reality is far more simplistic in that it would be a combination of a few of these signs as opposed to a dramatic breakdown that would reveal an underlying problem. However it does reveal itself, it can be dealt with through communication techniques and effective management, which I will talk about in my upcoming posts!