Middle-aged male reading about mental health.

Mental health red flags: How to recognize them and offer help

When someone you love is hurting, it’s natural to be concerned. But it can be difficult to know when – and how – to help.

Dominique Dietz, director of Behavioral Health for OSF HealthCare, says that it’s not as simple as a specific symptom or behavior being an automatic sign of mental or emotional distress. Instead, look for changes in behavior.

“You want to be able to know their baseline and see if that has changed,” she said. “You can ask yourself, is this person behaving differently than what I would expect normally?”

Dominique explained that most red-flag behaviors will fall into one of three categories.

  • Physical functioning. Are they sleeping too much or not enough? Have their eating patterns changed? Have their energy patterns changed, such as a person who typically is energetic acting lethargic or someone who exercises regularly seeming fatigued?
  • Emotional functioning. Is the person acting more irritable? Do they appear to be more easily frustrated? Are they crying more often?
  • Cognitive functioning. Are there changes in the way a person is interpreting or internalizing events? Are they having illogical responses to things that they would normally handle logically?

Sometimes, the signs of a mental or emotional struggle can be subtle. Other times, they might be drastic. Behaviors that should warrant an immediate response include:

  • Increased substance use (drugs or alcohol)
  • Not getting out of bed for days at a time
  • Suicidal thoughts or thoughts of hurting someone else

We all struggle. When should I be concerned?

We all experience stress, sadness and many different emotions, and we express them in different ways.

What might be a healthy form of expression for one person could be a warning sign for someone else.

Consider, for example, a person who makes a drastic change to their appearance.

One person might dye their hair green for fun. They continue to function in their day-to-day life in essentially the same way, just with a different hair color.

But someone who drastically changed their appearance and also stopped showing up for work or school, or was acting erratically, could be experiencing some mental or emotional distress.

“In order to be concerned about a person’s behavior, it would need to be larger pattern of behavior that involved other red flags,” Dominique said.

Look for patterns or escalating behaviors.

Approaching the conversation

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When you recognize someone might be struggling, the next step is to offer them help. Broaching the subject can be scary, but being honest and compassionate will help you get started.

“Most times, individuals are nervous or even scared to bring up these things with their loved ones. The best way to go about these situations is being direct. Ask your loved one, ‘Do you need help? And If so, let me help you, get the help you need,’” Dominique said. “ It may be hard to be direct but it is worth it.”

“Be present, listen, and be available for them. Work together to get the right resources,” she said.

Giving someone the space to open up and share their experiences is an important part of recovery. Because of the stigma of mental health disorders, people sometimes feel ashamed or reluctant to admit they might be struggling.

Try to avoid phrases like “You’re fine,” “You’re going to be OK,” or “Can’t you just …”

“What they need from you is to know you are there for them, listening and want to help,” Dominique said.

Seeking help

Many different resources and types of mental health care are available, and it can become overwhelming to find the right one.

“OSF offers a program that helps people access resources that they need. This program offers a single point of contact for them,” Dominique said.

That point of contact is a behavioral health navigator, a person who is trained to help you decide what type of care will be most helpful for you and connect you with resources in your community. To get started, call (309) 308-8150.

A similar service, called Resource Link, is available through OSF HealthCare Children’s Hospital of Illinois with a focus on providing resources to children and teens.

SilverCloud is also available for adults to manage the feelings and causes of depression, anxiety or stress through an online platform.

All of these services are free for anyone to access.

“It is important that we are present, listen and support one another,” Dominique said.

About Author: Laura Nightengale

Laura Nightengale was a writing coordinator for OSF HealthCare. 

She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Kansas and worked as a reporter at a daily newspaper for five years before joining OSF HealthCare. 

When she’s not working, Laura loves to travel, read, and spend time with her family, including her sweet and ornery dog.

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Categories: Mental Health