4 Signs It May Be Time To Seek Professional Mental Health Help – Forbes

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Stress, anxiety and feeling down are a part of everyday life, but if those emotions linger, it may be a sign of something more. While some negative feelings are to be expected with all that’s happening in the world, it’s important to distinguish between average mental strain and conditions that need professional treatment.
If you feel paralyzed by stress, can’t control your emotions, depression interferes with your ability to function or you notice these or similar symptoms in a loved one, it may be time to seek professional care. Learning to recognize the signs of a more serious condition may help you decide if it’s time to seek help.
Mental health encompasses our emotions, thoughts and mental well-being. When someone has a mental health disorder, it can affect their thoughts and behavior, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
While the terms are often mixed, “mental health and mental illness are not the same,” the CDC notes. “A person can experience poor mental health and not be diagnosed with a mental illness.” Likewise, someone with a mental health disorder can experience “physical, mental and social well-being.” Mental health disorders include depression, anxiety, schizophrenia and more.
Although there may be unwarranted stigma surrounding mental health issues, these conditions are more common than many believe; in 2019, 19% of U.S. adults met the criteria for mental health disorders, according to Mental Health America[1]. And more than half may be diagnosed with a mental health disorder at some point, notes the National Institutes of Health[2].
“Everyone has some level of anxiety, especially with the pandemic and with the way the world is right now,” says Manreet Kaur, a national certified counselor and clinical lead at Valley Youth House in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. “It is important to know when to seek help.”
It can be difficult to tell whether your feelings are a typical response to the ups and downs of life or a more serious issue. Here are some of the key differences between manageable emotions and more serious mental health conditions.
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Stress is a biological response to what your brain perceives as a threatening situation. Neurotransmitters within the brain activate the amygdala, which is responsible for the flight-or-fight response, notes Yale Medicine. Typical causes of stress include major life changes like a divorce or a medical diagnosis, work-related pressure or financial issues.
Stress is a part of life but prolonged periods of stress can lead to negative physical health effects such as a weakened immune system. “A person who is constantly stressed can suffer from consistent headaches, gastrointestinal issues and even muscle pain,” says Kaur. “Our bodies are usually first to tell us that something is wrong and we need to slow down to decrease our stress levels. It’s one of the reasons taking time to relax or meditate can be so helpful.”
If stress overtakes your life, or that of someone you know, it may make sense to see a psychologist, psychiatrist or licensed professional counselor, who could develop a treatment plan that works for your needs.
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Anxiety is similar to stress, as it’s your brain’s response to a perceived threat. Symptoms may include increased heart rate, difficulty breathing and feeling nervous, notes the National Institute of Mental Health. Anxiety is often experienced as a result of a tense or stressful event and resolves over time. However, an anxiety disorder involves repetitive worry when the threat is no longer present, according to Kaur. “When the anxiety has manifested itself to a point where you are unable to function, it’s important to seek help,” she says.
Depression is a common mental health disorder that negatively impacts your ability to function. Neurons are not able to connect as easily with other neurons in the brain as depression occurs, as noted by Yale Medicine. Symptoms of depression may include social withdrawal, poor sleeping, weight changes or aches and pain. Someone who is depressed will also experience feelings of sadness, guilt and loss of previously enjoyed activities.
There are multiple treatments that can help, but it’s important to talk to a professional who can determine if a poor mood is fleeting or a sign of clinical depression.
Mania is characterized by extreme emotional highs or lows, where a person can become uncontrollable. Symptoms can include racing thoughts, rapid speech, irritability and paranoia. Manic episodes are an indicator of mental health conditions such as bipolar I or schizoaffective disorder.
“Mood swings can be triggered by stress, but if a person is cycling between a high (manic episode) and a low (depression) consistently, it’s a definite sign to seek help from a provider,” says Kaur.
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It can be challenging to determine whether you are experiencing a natural response to a stressful event or dealing with a more serious mental health issue. Only a professional such as a psychologist, psychiatrist or licensed professional counselor can accurately evaluate your mental well-being and suggest a plan for treatment if necessary.
However, there are some signs to look out for when assessing your own mental health and deciding if professional help is necessary:
If you experience one or more of these symptoms, take action. “The time to seek help would be when your daily functioning is impacted in a negative way,” says Kaur. “For example, this could be leaving your home, going to work, driving or any part of your daily routine. The difference between sadness and depression is loss of hope or safety. If the sadness is taking over your life for more than a month following an upsetting event, you should seek professional help.”
Once you have decided to seek help for your mental health, a great place to start is your primary physician. Your doctor can often refer you to a professional specializing in mental health concerns. A psychiatrist, psychologist or professional counselor will then recommend a plan that may include therapy, lifestyle changes, medication or a combination of treatments. What works for one person may not work for another, so it’s important to find what works best for you.
Many people dealing with mental health conditions benefit from attending therapy. A professional counselor may speak to you about your personal goals and often provide strategies to cope with your symptoms. Many therapists accept health insurance plans or offer payment plan options. To find a mental health professional close to you, the American Psychological Association has an easy-to-use psychologist locator on its website. To find a therapist that specializes in your specific challenges, you can also download a teletherapy app on your smartphone.
If you are experiencing thoughts of self-harm or suicide, it’s crucial you seek help immediately. You can call 911 or contact the national suicide prevention hotline.
Connect With A Counselor
If you’re in crisis or having suicidal thoughts, call Mental Health America’s 24-hour hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or message its live online chat service for immediate support from a trained counselor. If you’re in immediate danger, call 911.
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Meghan Mannarino is a New Jersey-based freelance writer with a passion for family and wellness. An educator for 10 years, she holds a bachelor's degree in psychology and a master's degree in education. When she’s not working, she enjoys spending time with her husband, 3-year-old son and Pembroke Welsh corgi.

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