The people we love the most are often the hardest for us to “diagnose.” Your spouse has been grumpier than usual lately, but that’s probably because he’s having some conflicts with his supervisor at work. Your mother is getting less and less motivated to leave her house – but that’s probably due to age and maybe some anxiety about driving. How do we know when our spouse’s irritability signals a deeper mental health issue? How do we know when our mother’s anxiety has passed the point of “normal”?
Your loved one’s mental health struggles may become undeniable when they express feelings of hopelessness or question the point of life or refuse altogether to go outside. But ideally, it’s best to intervene as soon as you notice a problem. Early treatment can help prevent mental health issues from escalating into the danger zone, where your loved one’s life may suddenly be on the line.
So what are some early signs that might point to the need for psychiatric treatment? Let’s take a look.
Sadness. R.E.M. was right: Everybody hurts sometimes, sometimes everything is wrong. If your loved one has experienced a loss of some kind (job, house, friend, loved one), they will most likely grieve, maybe for quite some time. But if that sadness starts to take over their lives, or if they are experiencing sadness with no tangible trigger, pay attention. It’s quite possible for that sadness to intensify into depression. When symptoms of depression (like fatigue, loss of interest in things once enjoyed, mood swings, weight gain or loss, etc.) start to show, seek help.
Anger/Irritability. Unusual levels of anger and irritability can point to a mental health issue. Depression might be driving the emotions (men, especially, tend to show depression through anger rather than overt sadness), but other mental health disorders might also be at play. Intermittent explosive disorder is characterized by frequent outbursts of anger, often way out of proportion to the cause. This disorder often accompanies anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder, and autism. Heightened anger or outbursts in a loved one can signal a need for psychiatric assessment.
Anxiety. Anxiety disorder in a loved one can be hard to notice, especially if they’ve always been “the nervous type.” People who have lived with anxiety for a long time have often structured and limited their lives so thoroughly that they aren’t even aware of how their anxiety is holding them back. While these people could certainly benefit from psychiatric help, they would probably deny their anxiety is a real issue. But if a loved one suddenly seems more anxious than usual, and if that anxiety starts to affect their ability to care for themselves or to function in their typical routine, it’s time to seek professional help.
Substance use. If your loved one has increased their use of alcohol or drugs, including certain prescription drugs like opioids and benzodiazepines, they may be attempting to self-medicate physical or emotional pain that could indicate an underlying mental health disorder. A substance use disorder that accompanies a mental health disorder is called a co-occurring disorder, and it requires treatment that addresses both issues simultaneously.
Strange thinking and behavior. This may sound pretty vague – after all, everyone defines “strange” differently. What we’re referring to here are signs of psychosis, which can be detected in speech patterns, delusional thinking, and hallucinations. If your loved one starts talking faster, constantly, and in a confused way (perhaps by switching topics frequently, even mid-sentence; or by frequently losing their train of thought), that’s a potential sign of psychosis. Delusional thinking can include paranoia (fearing someone or some organization is trying to harm them); grandiosity (believing themselves to have special powers or authority); and firmly believing something that is not true. Hallucinations mean the person is sensing things that do not exist except in their mind.
People’s emotions are complicated, and mental health disorders can be difficult to diagnose. But you know your loved ones best. If they begin to consistently exhibit behaviors or emotions more intensely than usual and are losing their ability to function, it’s time to reach out for help. You can do that by contacting your family doctor, reaching out to a psychiatrist or therapist, or calling our team at Raleigh Oaks in Garner, North Carolina, to determine whether a free, confidential assessment is in order. We treat adults and seniors with compassionate, multidisciplinary care.
If your loved one expresses any thoughts of or attempts toward suicide, or if they are showing signs of psychosis, call 911 or text or call 988, The Suicide & Crisis Lifeline, for immediate help.