Mental health is a taboo subject for many people. For generations, mental illness has been something to lock away, ignore or push to the fringe of society. People with mental illnesses were seen as dangerous and movies portrayed them as someone to fear. We at Life Works want to change this fear of mental illness. To do this, we have compiled a list of the symptoms of mental illness and explanations of what these symptoms mean.
Our hope is to help people understand that someone with a mental illness is just a normal person with a treatable condition. Mental illnesses, like physical illnesses, are real problems that can be overcome with the right help.
- Feeling sad or upset- Feeling sad for long periods of time can indicate that someone is suffering from depression. It could also be a symptom of another mental illness like an addiction or eating disorder. The feelings of sadness can be overwhelming and can become so acute that the sufferer feels real pain as a result. People often make the mistake of telling depressed individuals to, " change their attitude" but this does not help. It is like telling someone with cancer to " hurry up and get better". The best advice is to listen and offer support.
- Rapid or extreme mood swings- Drug and alcohol addiction can cause mood swings. The changes in mood could be a direct result of a drug or they could be a part of the symptoms of withdrawal. A great example of this is an alcoholic. They will start drinking and they could be very happy and personable. Once they drink too much, they could suddenly become angry or abrasive. Then the next morning, they will probably be suffering from a hangover which may leave them withdrawn and depressed. Often people react to sudden mood swings by telling people they, "have everything they need to get better". Even if this is true, someone with a mental health problem cannot just flip a switch and start recovering. Telling them they should start getting better is like telling them they are not trying hard enough. It could end up causing them to feel guilty and retreat back into their disease.
- Withdrawal from friends and activities- Most mental illnesses will cause people to withdraw from the people and activities they love. This is because mental illnesses take up time and energy while creating shame and fear. A good example is an eating disorder. People with an ED spend their entire day obsessing about food and their body. This can be exhausting and leads sufferers to hide their bodies and their eating habits. It is only natural for someone with an ED to withdraw from everyday life. They are exhausted from worrying about food and they feel they must hide their bodies and eating habits. Often times well-meaning people will tell someone with an eating disorder to, "just snap out of it and eat something". Like many mental illnesses, eating disorders cause a lot of shame. By telling someone with an ED to snap out of it, you are implying they are intentionally suffering from an eating disorder. This type of comment will only cause more shame and may drive the person with an ED further into their disease.
- Inability to cope with stress or daily troubles- Many people, particularly those with anxiety problems struggle with everyday interactions. These people may spend an hour just trying to mentally prepare for stepping outside. Severe anxiety can cause hyperventilating, panic attacks and high stress levels. This can also affect a person's physical health quite noticeably. Many people make the mistake of telling anxiety sufferers to "get over it", or "stop being a wimp". The problem is, pushing someone with anxiety into a situation that triggers their condition can cause real problems and may actually make them further resist real treatment. It is much better to do what you can and encourage them to seek treatment.
- Extreme feelings of guilt- Nearly every addiction and other mental health problem comes with feelings of guilt. Whether someone has an addiction or an eating disorder, they will feel ashamed of their problem. This is because people with mental health issues often few their problem as a personal failing. This is why treatment centres stress that, while a person may have chosen to try a drug or alcohol, they did not choose to be an addict. The shame and self-loathing that comes with many mental illnesses is likely part of the problem. When people are not able to change their behaviours, they often see it as a moral failure or a sign of lack of will power. Some people try to fight the guilt with tough love but this can be seen as judgment and only causes more shame.
- Alcohol or drug abuse- People suffering from a mental illness will often turn to drugs or alcohol to "self-medicate". This means they use a substance to distract themselves, numb their pain or deal with their feelings. This is a very unhealthy habit and can lead to many new problems. If someone does start using drugs or alcohol as a coping mechanism, it is important to speak with them and find them medical help. Without proper treatment this type of coping could quickly turn into a new addiction that will only add to the persons problems.
- Drastic changes in eating habits- This is most common in eating disorders but can also be seen in depression or other mental illnesses. People suffering from an eating disorder often see their world as out of control. To combat this feeling, they focus on their eating as a means of regaining some control. When this does not help, people with an ED often increase the controls on eating until they are exhibiting some very dangerous eating habits. Often those who do not understand eating disorders will see an ED as attention seeking and tell sufferers to "just eat something". This not only propagates more guilt and self-loathing for the sufferer, it also shows a lack of understanding of how eating disorders work. The best advice for helping anyone with an eating disorder is to find them professional help. The longer an eating disorder goes untreated, the more engrained it becomes.
- Excessive anger or hostility- Many mental illnesses can cause anger or hostility. People with mental illnesses are scared, upset, angry, riddled with guilt and under huge amounts of stress. They are trying to deal with all the usual problems while fighting a war with themselves. It is important to remember that this does not make them dangerous but it can make them angry. Imagine trying to go through life with someone yelling at you in your head. At first you might be able to ignore it, but eventually it would get on your nerves and you would probably snap at someone or become angry. Rather than fearing someone with a mental illness for their anger, it is better to understand that they are scared and tired of fighting their disease. They need help, not judgement.
With Mental Health Awareness Week in progress, remember that people with mental illnesses do not need your fear or judgement. What they need most is your help and understanding. Understanding that is the first step towards acceptance and a healthier society.
Find out more about mental health disorders by visiting the Life Works Knowledge Centre