Mental illness is extraordinarily pervasive, and the likelihood is that you, or someone you know, has a diagnosable disorder. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, approximately 1 in every 5 adults in the U.S. (about 18.5% percent of Americans) experience some level of mental illness every year. That is a huge percentage! While there has been a notable increase in public awareness that those experiencing symptoms of mental illness should seek out help immediately, it can be hard for some people to accept that they need professional intervention in the first place. And just what are you supposed to do if you suspect that someone you know is struggling, unbeknownst to them, with mental illness?
First, you need to know what “red flag” behavior looks like. Ask yourself some questions:
- Has someone you’ve known recently seemed emotionally empty, cold, or even just sad?
- Are they having trouble enjoying the activities they used to enjoy?
- Are they struggling at school or work?
- Maybe you’ve seen a friend or family member becoming more and more socially distant, acting increasingly disconnected and emotionally unattached to their lives?
- Maybe they’ve stopped hanging out with you, and haven’t really had any good excuses as to why? (In this case, it might be good to get some information from some of their other regular contacts; are they isolating themselves from you specifically, or from everyone? Even if it is just you, however, don’t discount the hand of mental illness as a factor – sometimes certain friendships are harder than others to maintain for someone feeling depressed – particularly more emotionally vulnerable relationships.)
- Are they expressing a level of anxiety that consistently does not seem proportionate to the stimuli causing the anxiety?
- Have you ever witnessed them having a panic attack, or experiencing any other negative physical symptoms because of an anxiety-inducing or stressful situation?
- Do they regularly have intense mood swings? Do they sometimes experience periods of heightened mania or sadness?
- Have they been sleeping ok?
Even once you’ve undergone this mental checklist, you want to leave the actual diagnosing to the professionals. Don’t approach the issue like you know exactly what’s going on; simply approach with the understanding that you have noticed that something is wrong, and you are there to listen to and support your loved one in any way you can.
Ask yourself these questions before approaching anyone who you may believe is suffering from a mental illness:
- How long have they been showing symptoms?
- How severe are the symptoms?
- Do they have a supportive network of friends, family or coworkers available to them?
- Will you be able to ask them about this in a safe, appropriate environment where they feel supported?
Ultimately, though, trust your instincts. If you think something is wrong, remember: statistics bear your theory out. Once you decide to move forward and plan a time to approach them, here are some steps you can take to create a safe, supportive environment:
Make sure you will have plenty of time together so you can talk to them openly without having the constraint of a time limit.
Don’t ambush them; you don’t have to tell them everything ahead of time, because that might be a scary situation to walk into, but make sure they are prepared to have a conversation with you. If they feel ambushed, they might become defensive or closed off.
For a similar reason, if you are planning an intervention with multiple people, keep the group small and intimate.
Open up and be humble while expressing your concern. It will be easier to be vulnerable around you if you, yourself, model openness and vulnerability. You may say something along the lines of, “I’ve been feeling worried about you. Are you comfortable talking to me about yourself? If not, who would you be comfortable talking to?”
When you’re talking to them, find out if they are already seeking care through a doctor or a therapist. If not, gently but firmly urge them to go in for care and, if possible, help them gather the resources they need to do so. Having some of that information gathered beforehand would not be a bad idea.
Assure them that they are not alone in their feelings. You can educate them on how prominent mental illness is, but do so without launching into a long monologue – you aren’t hear to talk as much as you are to listen. Ask questions, and listen very attentively to their responses, without judgment. This listening component is by far the most vital.
Take mental notes of what they say. Reassure them that you are there to support them. Make no judgments about their behavior, and do not victim-blame – a term for inferring that a victim of some sort of illness or trauma is at fault for their reactions.
Once you’ve had this conversation, it’s also important to keep up with them, and keep them on your radar – don’t let them become too detached from their social life. Make plans with them, even if they decline at first – it takes a little convincing, but most people want to reconnect. Don’t let yourself show any impatience with the pace of their recovery – but know that it is normal and okay to feel some frustration and impatience in such a situation.
Above all else, if you believe that they are in serious danger of hurting themselves or others, you should call 911, or a crisis hotline such as the National Suicide Prevention hotline at 1-800-273-8255 . This is non-negotiable and not dependent on the consent of the person who is in danger; once they have crossed this threshold, your primary job is just to make sure they stay safe. You can talk more once your loved one is out of danger.