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World Mental Health Day – How to spot the early signs of mental health issues

Today is World Mental Health Day. The focus for this year is Suicide Prevention and in this article, Alicia Drummond, our In-House Parenting & Mental Health Expert, teaches us how not to fixate on this terrifying subject but importantly how prevention can be cure by spotting the early signs of mental health problems – many of which are thankfully temporary and curable.

The campaign has been called #40 seconds because globally someone loses their life to suicide every 40 seconds. To lose a young person to suicide is just beyond devastating and we desperately need to work harder to prevent anyone else reaching the point where they feel so hopeless and helpless that death feels like the only option.

So what can we do?

Well, first I think we need to help young people understand that our mental health is not static – just like our physical health it changes from day to day. I don’t agree with giving people labels such as ‘anxious’ or ‘depressed’ because when we do we run the risk of making the person into the illness. Rather than saying “she is depressed” we might say instead “she is suffering with depression at the moment”. This implies that it is a temporary state that can be overcome.

Perhaps it is more helpful to think of a mental illness as an injury. Most people will recover from the injury and may never suffer again, others may sustain an injury that leads to longer term problems, with symptoms that are harder to manage, but I think it is vital that we never take away people’s hope of a full recovery.

“Think of a mental illness as an injury. Most people will recover from the injury and may never suffer again”

If young people can truly understand that mental health changes over time I think it gives them hope when they are feeling low and helps them appreciate the need for self care when they are feeling ok. If suicide is a way to stop feeling utterly hopeless and helpless, then giving reassurance and hope is an essential part of prevention.

I think it is also helpful to remember that we are actually designed to cope with a lot of stress and I think this is an important message to get across to young people. Stress per se is not always bad – short term situational stress like the stress you might experience going into an exam or on stage makes us perform better.  But long term, low level stress is the stress we need to avoid and too many of us are living in this zone – where the stress chemicals, cortisol, adrenalin and noradrenalin are cruising around our bodies, compromising our immune systems and causing all number of physical ailments which, in turn, effect our sense of wellbeing. We all have a mental burnout point and this will differ from person to person.

Adolescence in itself is stressful. They are transitioning from being dependent children to becoming independent adults, which is tough. They have to change the bonds they have with us parents, whilst trying to find their adult identity.  Their brains are wired to need social acceptance and connection but to be super sensitive to judgement, criticism or rejection.  Some are so busy trying desperately to be perfect that they burn out hard and fast. And then there are the decisions that all teenagers must make, some of which, such as drug taking or their use of screens, may have a disastrous impact on their mental health.

There is a lot going on and many of the symptoms that might help in diagnosing a mental health problem in adults, such as fast changing emotions and losing interest in childhood pleasures is normal teenage behaviour.

So here are some signs to watch out for:

  • Has your child stopped wanting to spend time with their friends and stopped doing things they have always enjoyed? Most teenagers want to spend more time away from their parents and to have more privacy but if they stop wanting to see old friends and do activities they have always enjoyed this can be the sign of an emerging mental health problem.
  • Have their energy levels changed significantly?  Coping with a mental illness whilst trying to carry on with life is exhausting.  I think it is helpful to remember that our bodies and brains repair themselves when we sleep so just as we want to curl up in bed when we get the flu so we will usually want to do the same when we have a mental illness.
  • Are they school refusing or has there been a sudden change in their academic performance?  This could be a sign that they are being bullied or it could be that the noise and busyness of school has become overwhelming.
  • Have you noticed that they have developed rigid routines and become anxious and upset if they are not able to do them? Creating routines can be a way of trying to impose a sense of structure and order when life feels overwhelming.  The routines reduce feelings of anxiety but when they can’t carry them out the anxiety flares up.
  • Do they often have physical pains that can’t be medically explained such as stomach or head aches?  When we are stressed we have higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol  which can lead to a number of physical illnesses.
  • Do they seem to be having trouble concentrating and remembering things?  This can be a sign that they are struggling to manage their thoughts and feelings and are therefore too distracted to take in and remember extra information.
  • Have you noticed changes in their eating habits?  Disinterest in food can be a symptom of some mental health conditions such as depression or they might be restricting food as a way of gaining a sense of control and binge eating can be a way of dulling painful feelings.
  • Have they stopped looking after their personal appearance and hygiene?  This may be a symptom that they are not feeling emotionally well enough to care about their appearance or that they no longer think they are worth caring for.

If someone is becoming mentally unwell you would expect to see changes in their thinking, feeling and behaviour and it is important to remember that no one sign means there is a problem.

I also think it is important that we don’t medicalise a normal reaction to a life event – if someone dies it is normal to feel disbelief, sadness, anger and sometimes a host of other emotions such as relief or guilt – it will take time to come to terms with the loss but this is not a mental illness.

Concerned? Next steps…

If you are concerned that someone you know is suffering a mental illness but you are not sure, consider how different they are to their normal?  How many symptoms have you noticed; how often are these symptoms evident, how long have these symptoms been present and how severe are they?

If you have observed a number of symptoms for three weeks or longer then intervention is advised unless they express suicidal thoughts in which case immediate help is required.  If expert help is needed the best place to start is with your GP.  On the Teen Tips website you will find links for organisations who offer psychological help.

Whether they need immediate help or not:-

  • Start a conversation and give them the opportunity to talk.
  • They need you to be calm and let them know they are loved.
  • They need you to listen without judgement.
  • They need you to reassure them that they will be ok and that they will feel better.
  • They need you to help them explore options for getting help.
  • They also need you to look after yourself because when someone is in mental crisis they need as much care and attention as someone who has undergone major surgery and that can be hard work.

More about Alicia Drummond…
Alicia is a therapist accredited with the British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy; she is also a pastoral care consultant working with over 100 schools in the UK and abroad and, perhaps most importantly, is a parent.Teen Tips Courses, Talks and Workshops are designed to give information, advice and practical tips and tools to help you to help teenagers fulfil their potential.Visit her website for more information here www.teentips.co.uk/

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