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WHAT DO ‘MENTAL HEALTH’ PROBLEMS ACTUALLY LOOK LIKE?

Frequent headlines in the news report “the level of mental health” among Americans is declining or “mental health issues are a primary concern” as a long-term consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic. But what do mental health problems look like practically in our daily lives?

 

As a counselor, I often bristle at using generic terms in the mainstream media (and those who comment on the topics in social media) without really defining what the words mean. One government agency describes mental health as “our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make choices.” A key aspect of understanding a person’s mental health level is not equating it with the idea that “everything is ok” but rather that the person can function relatively well (not perfectly) in daily life, able to handle the stresses and challenges of typical life demands.

Conversely, we demonstrate mental health challenges when:

  1. We are not able to successfully cope with the daily demands and responsibilities in our lives.
  2. We experience significant ongoing negative feelings in response to what is going on in our lives.
  3. We turn to ineffective and self-defeating strategies to cope with our lives’ stress and demands.

Ultimately, the results are demonstrated by an inability to function successfully in our daily responsibilities, our relationships with others, and managing our moods and behaviors.

 

I want to share some of the most common behavior patterns and mood disturbances that are signs we are struggling.

Depression: When we feel overwhelmed and have little sense of hope that circumstances will get better, the result is often some level of depression. This can include discouragement, apathy, and a desire to “give up.” Depression expresses itself in different ways (both in other individuals and across time). Behaviors frequently associated with depression are a sense of sadness, feeling “blue,” not experiencing pleasure (when you usually would), sleeping more, not being able to sleep, crying, feeling overwhelmed, social withdrawal, and passivity. A core aspect of depression is hopelessness, which can lead someone to think about ending their life. (“Why try? It will never get better.” “No one cares and no one will miss me.”)

 

Anxiety: At the heart of anxiety is some sense of fear that something terrible will happen. Anxiety is always about the future – what will happen (or won’t, if we want it to). The experience of anxiety ranges in intensity from mild concern to being nervous, to intense fear and possibly panic, to the level that one becomes paralyzed or incapacitated in living functionally in daily life (for example, being so terrified you cannot leave your house, or interact with others). A challenge with anxiety is that it is often rooted, to some degree, in fragments of reality but usually takes the fear and resulting actions to an extreme.

 

Irritability / Anger: For some individuals, when experiencing either long-term stress or a combination of intense stressors in their lives, their coping mechanisms become worn down, and less healthy behaviors start to occur – being easily irritated by everyday “little things,” having a quick temper and angry outbursts, being more verbally abrasive than usual, hitting things or throwing objects, and, unfortunately, sometimes being physically aggressive toward others.

 

Overuse of Alcohol and Drugs: Some individuals attempt to bolster their coping abilities by using alcohol and drugs – for differing reasons: deadening the emotional pain one is experiencing and creating a sense of distance from others, and the demands of your life are two common ones. Like any coping mechanism, alcohol use (and pain killers) may often start as an innocuous way to manage the stress of everyday life. Still, they can subtly grow into a more intense dependency that creates secondary problems (not getting up and thinking the following day, using the drug to get through the day). More significant use and dependence create numerous difficulties in many areas of one’s life (physical, social, vocational, emotional).

 

Other Forms of Flight into Fantasy and Withdrawal from Responsibility: Drug use and overuse of alcohol are not the only unhealthy ways individuals use to cope with the experience of excessive demands in their lives. Traditional, individual video games, online interactive gaming, binging on movies and television series, continual watching of sports and their derivatives (talk shows, fantasy leagues) are common examples. Almost any healthy way of rejuvenation and reaction can become unhealthy when the frequency and duration of the activity become so great that it interferes with normal, daily-life functioning – not interacting with family members, staying up late and losing sleep, not doing the laundry, grocery shopping or cleaning the kitchen.

 

I would predict that we experience some level of challenge in at least one of the areas described. Why? Because we are all human, aren’t perfectly healthy, and are in the midst of a long-term experience of greater-than-normal demands and the inability to access many ways to replenish the emotional reserves that we have used in the past. The result? Reduced capacity to deal with the stressors in our lives in a healthy way.

 

There is no way in this article that I can share all of the possible actions that we can take, both individually and as parts of a community, to see if someone is struggling, but I do want to share some of the more significant steps.

 

Do a self-assessment. As always, it is best to start with yourself – even though it is easier to identify problem behaviors in others. Which behavioral and emotional responses do you tend to use or express when you are struggling to cope with the stress in your life? Which is occurring more than you would like? When are they most likely to occur?

 

Consider those around you. Approach this process from a perspective of seeking to understand rather than blame or condemn. When someone (a family member, friend, or colleague) displays behaviors that aren’t healthy for them and those around them, they realize these are signs of stress in their lives. They are experiencing these moods or using the behaviors to cope with the stress they are participating in the best way they know how to currently.

 

Identify and connect with resources to help. Find resources (online ones from reputable organizations are best) to help you better understand what you are experiencing and ways to better manage your stress than the unhealthy ways you may use.

Remember: having occasional glitches of not handling situations well is to be expected. But do your best to pay attention to early warning signs and symptoms. Do what you can to engage in those activities (hobbies, hiking, music, talking with friends) that re-energize you. And seek out support to deal with your challenges healthily – both from those around you as well as professionals.

 

Blessings,

Jackie

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