One of the hardest things for individuals to answer is, “Do I have a mental health problem?” With physical health, it is often easy to know when you have a problem. If you are running a temperature of 102F, you know you have a fever; the average human body temperature of 98.6F is well known.
But what’s the average mental health temperature? Is there such a thing? How do you know when mental health has crossed the line into mental health problems?
Signs of Mental Health
To answer the question, “Do I have a mental health issue?” it is important to first define the signs of mental health. Just as you need to know the average temperature for most people to determine when the thermometer reading edges out of range and into the danger zone, so too you need to know the ave,rage “mental temperature” for human beings and when behavior crosses the line from quirky to dangerous.
There are several factors used to assess mental health. Doctors assess heart, lungs, temperature, and other categories to determine bodily health. Mental health is assessed by attitudes, actions, behaviors, and relationships.
In general, mentally healthy people:
- Feel comfortable with themselves: They know their own strengths and weaknesses. They weather life’s storms relatively well, allowing themselves to feel grief, anger, and joy when it is appropriate, but not lingering on any one emotion too long.
- Demonstrate good personal boundaries: They know what’s appropriate to share with others and what’s best kept to themselves. They honor personal confidences and secrets, and are trustworthy when asked to do something. Mentally healthy people know it is okay to say “no” to requests that violate their personal boundaries, ethics, or morals.
- Laugh at themselves: One of the most important signs of mental health is the ability to laugh. Mentally healthy people see the humor in daily life, and especially in their own actions. They poke gently fun at themselves and enjoy sharing a laugh with others.
- Enjoy both time alone and with others: Although the amount of time a person likes to spend with others depends on how much of an introvert or extrovert they are, mentally healthy people in general enjoy both time alone and time with others. They’re comfortable being by themselves, but they are also comfortable speaking with others or spending quality time with family and friends.
- Put things into perspective: A mentally healthy person puts life into perspective. They do not read into other people’s actions and constantly wonder what people are saying, thinking, or doing in relation to themselves.
- Accept differences: Mentally healthy people may have strong opinions about right and wrong ways to live, but they “live and let live,” meaning they acknowledge not everyone shares their views about important issues. They can accept other people for who they are without compromising their own values and integrity.
- Meet life’s challenges: Mentally healthy people view themselves as competent adults capable of handling daily life. If they experience a challenge, they find solutions or seek help when appropriate.
- Treat others with respect: Healthy people also respect other people. They do not use others for their own ends, or verbally, physically, or sexually abuse others. Mentally healthy people recognize others have feelings, too. Someone who is mentally healthy has generally healthy relationships with friends, family, and coworkers. Although some relationships may sour, they do not leave behind a pattern of broken trust or hurt feelings.
Everyone has some psychological bumps, bruises, and scars. It is part of living. As you read the list above, you may realize you are healthy in most areas but may have one or two areas to work on. That is normal and natural.
If you would like to work on certain areas to improve your mental health, you have many choices. You can read self-help books, join a support group, or participate in individual or group therapy.
Mental health, like physical health, is a continuum. Everyone can find room for improvement. The key is making sure no area gets so out of balance it falls into the realm of sickness.
Signs of Mental Health Problems
Now that you have a good picture of what a mentally healthy person looks like, it is time to understand the signs of mental health problems. When assessing mental health problems, doctors look at how long the problem has lasted and how severe it is. Severity may be assessed based upon the impact the problem has on you, your entire life, and others around you.
How Do I Know If I Have Mental Health Problems?
Common symptoms of mental health issues include:
- Excess in any areas of emotions: Excesses or extremes are often signs of mental health problems. Excessive worry or anxiety, excessive sadness, and even excessive joy bordering on mania that lasts for a long time or seems inappropriate to the situation can all be signs of mental health problems.
- Sadness that will not go away: It is normal to feel sad or depressed if someone you love dies, a pet dies, you lose a job, or another major life event happens. But when that sadness never lifts and seems to spiral downward, it may be a sign of a mental health problem such as depression.
- Suicidal thoughts: If you find yourself dwelling on death, thinking of ways to kill yourself, or contemplating suicide, seek help immediately. Tell a family member or friend. Call a suicide hotline or go to the emergency room. Do not wait to get help.
- Confusion: Confused or jumbled thoughts, racing thoughts that will not slow down, or illogical thoughts that will not go away may all be signs of mental illness. Some physical illnesses and medications can also cause confusion, so talk to your doctor if you are on any medication or have been diagnosed with any illnesses to rule out a physical cause.
- Hallucinations: Everyone sees something out of the corner of their eye once in a while or thinks they hear something. It is when those hallucinations occur often or seem so real you insist they are to others who do not see them, you probably need to be screened for mental illness. Hallucinations that tell you to do something you wouldn’t normally do, such as hurt yourself, a loved one, or a pet, are immediate red flags. Tell your doctor, or head to the emergency room.
- Excessive anger: Sudden outbursts of rage, especially over minor incidents, point to deeper mental health issues.
- Changes in eating or sleeping habits: You are gorging on everything in sight, or you have no appetite. You want to sleep all day, or you cannot get a wink of sleep no matter how many sheep you count. Major changes in eating or sleeping patterns can all be signs of mental illness.
- Feeling unable to cope with life: When normal daily problems feel overwhelming and you feel like you cannot cope with the simplest things, you may be suffering from mental illness.
- Isolation and withdrawal: People with mental illnesses often withdraw from all social interactions. It gets too hard to cope with family, friends, and coworkers, so they isolate themselves. Human beings are social creatures, and mentally healthy people need at least some close relationships in their lives to be happy. Too much isolation can be a sign of mental illness.
- Alcohol and drug abuse: Alcohol and drug abuse can cause mental illness, or they may be signs someone is seeking substances to self-medicate for mental disorders. Many people who feel anxious turn to alcohol to relieve anxiety. Others turn to hallucinogens and other drugs to relieve feelings of depression, isolation, and anxiety.
Signs and Symptoms of Common Mental Illnesses
Some symptoms of mental health problems coincide with common mental illnesses.
Depression, also called major depressive disorder, is a spectrum of disorders ranging from non-specific feelings of sadness that persist for several months or more to suicidal thoughts and tendencies. Signs of depression include:
- Feelings of sorrow, sadness, despair, and hopelessness that last for weeks on end or last beyond a normal cause such as death or loss
- Changes in appetite and sleeping
- Isolation and withdrawal
Depression affects 14.8 million Americans and is one of the most commonly diagnosed mental illnesses in the nation. It can strike at any age, and it can kill. Medications and therapy, alone or in combination, are effective at treating major depressive disorder.
Bipolar disorder is characterized by cycles of depression and mania. These cycles may be a matter of weeks, months, or years, but each peak and valley is an extreme. Some people return to normal between these periods of extremes.
During manic episodes, people with bipolar may go on intense shopping sprees, feel euphoric and invincible, and be sexually promiscuous. They may speak rapidly, and eat and sleep very little. After a time, these moods calm down, and they may return to normal or drop into a depressive state.
During depressive incidents, nothing seems right. People feel blue and down, eat more, sleep more, and feel listless. Bipolar disorder can be successfully treated with medication and therapy.
Anxiety disorders range from social anxiety, or intense anxiety only in social situations, to panic attacks, generalized anxiety, and situation-specific anxiety. Anxiety disorders are characterized by intense periods of feeling anxious.
Sometimes these feelings trigger a panic attack. Panic attacks may feel like a heart attack. Shortness of breath, racing heart, dizziness, and other symptoms can send sufferers to the emergency room.
All forms of anxiety disorder can be treated with a variety of medications in combination with therapy, or either therapy or medication. Biofeedback, relaxation exercises, and cognitive therapy are all drug-free methods of treatment that work for anxiety. There are many options for people with anxiety disorders today, so do not hesitate to seek treatment if you think you have problems with anxiety.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is an anxiety disorder characterized by obsessive thoughts only relieved when a compulsion is enacted. Symptoms must be present continually, with at least one hour per day devoted to compulsions, before OCD is diagnosed.
People with OCD may hide their behavior and compulsions. Obsessions include obsessive thoughts about harm, often from germs or perceived danger, as well as an obsession with order and neatness. These obsessions are only relieved when a compulsion is repeated, such as washing one’s hands, checking the stove repeatedly, or organizing items into patterns.
Often people notice the results of the compulsive behavior before they realize someone they love has OCD. For example, people with the compulsion to wash their hands may do so until their skin is cracked and bleeding. Loved ones may urge them to get treatment for their skin condition, not realizing it is really an OCD disorder.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder can be treated with medications and therapy, but almost always require medication to keep the disease under control. Symptoms sometimes flare up when people are under stress, but they can go away on their own for short durations.
Perhaps one of the least-understood mental illnesses is schizophrenia. It is not a split personality, as some people may think. It is a brain disorder that:
- Causes hallucinations
- Disrupts thinking
- Sparks problems with balance and movement
Schizophrenia affects about one percent of the population. Symptoms include hallucinations, such as hearing voices, trouble moving, or random uncontrolled movements, and disorganized thinking. While schizophrenia is a chronic condition, treatment through medication can often relieve many major symptoms. Avoiding alcohol, drugs and stress can keep people healthier longer.
What to Do If You Think You Have Mental Health Problems
If you think you have mental health problems, it is important to see your doctor to rule out any medical issues that may cause the same symptoms. Your doctor can then refer you to a counselor, psychologist, or psychiatrist for diagnosis and treatment.
You may need to visit several different therapists before deciding on someone to work with for your treatment. That’s normal, and a therapist will not be upset if you decide to go elsewhere for counseling. What’s important is finding someone you feel you can trust.
Get references from family, friends, and your doctor for available therapists in your area. Consider whether or not you’d feel more comfortable working with a man or a woman, and whether a group or individual counseling works best for you.
If your doctor recommends medication to treat your symptoms, try it. Many people are afraid taking medicine for anxiety disorders, OCD, or depression will somehow change their personality. Nothing could be further from the truth. Today’s medications for mental disorders do not mask symptoms but help balance your brain chemistry so you can feel more like yourself, not less.
Most of the newer medications on the market have fewer side effects than older medications, so if you have tried medication before and are afraid to return to it because of side effects, talk to your doctor. He may be able to switch medications to another brand or medicine to mitigate side effects.
Whatever you do, do not let mental illness symptoms go untreated. It is no shame to admit you have an addiction or a problem. What is a shame is letting them go untreated and not living life to the fullest. Help is available, and you deserve to live a happy, healthy life!