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.

Luke Raymond, LCPC, manager 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.

“It’s important to look at a change from their baseline,” he said. “Ask yourself, is this person acting differently than I would normally expect?”

Luke 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.

“For it to be something to be concerned about, it would need to be part of a larger pattern that included some other red flags,” Luke 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.

“What often happens is that folks are intimidated or scared to address these things with our loved ones, and we really shouldn’t be. The best way to handle it is to directly ask a person, ‘Do you need help? And if so, let’s work together to get you the help you need,’” Luke said. “It’s a hard step, but it’s worth it.”

And listen.

“Be present and available. Work with them to find the right resources for them,” Luke 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’ll be OK,” “Everything is fine,” or “Why don’t you just …”

“The reassurance they are looking for is that you’re listening, you hear them and you want to help,” Luke said.

Seeking help

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

“At OSF, we implemented a program to help people access the resources they need. They can have a single point of contact,” Luke 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.

OSF 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’s important, particularly now during the pandemic, that we’re there for each other, we listen to each other and support each other. It’s that much more important to be present and available for each other,” Luke 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