It’s a condition that plagues our youth more than any other group. A worrying 26% of young people in the 18-24 age group have experienced a mental disorder. Add to that 14% of children and adolescents who have been diagnosed with a mental health issue. And these statistics comprise only the reported cases – estimated to be just 50% of the suffering population.
Mental health issues can have devastating consequences. Unfortunately, they are often spotted early but are hard to diagnose. And it is even harder to get the person on an effective treatment path. As a result, some cases result in substance abuse or suicides. This is made more difficult by the fact that the path to recovery is a hard one. Patients sometimes get addicted to the medication and that needs to be treated as well. The condition also requires a great deal of emotional and social support, which is not always available.
Recognising the problem
Mental health disorder is a very broad term. It can refer to ADHD, anxiety, bipolar, depression or schizophrenia to name a few. Disorders can stem from several genetic and environmental reasons and can manifest in a diverse range of behaviours. It can start with something quite normal like anxiety, irritability, sadness or loss of motivation. But when these emotions are difficult to overcome and continue for a period of time, they need to be addressed to avoid sustained behavioural and emotional damage. This could manifest as:
- Unusual and delusional thoughts, or hallucinations
- Unusual physical responses like restless, agitated behaviour or extreme sluggishness
- Mood swings, pronounced anxiety and depression and in some cases suicidal thoughts
- Inability to work or function socially
- Unable to care for oneself
In most cases, mental health issues are not evident in a single defining moment. They build up over time. But they can be caught early by family members, colleagues and friends.
How can you step in?
One of the most effective ways of stopping a downward spiral into a severe mental disorder is early detection. So what can you do if you see a significant and sustained decline in mood and behaviour in a family member, colleague or friend?
- Engage: Give the person an opportunity to talk. Don’t push it. Let the person open up. Usually, a person will open up to a friend or family member.
- Provide cues: – let the person know you are concerned and that you care about their well-being. Just a simple “You have been looking really tired for a while now. Have you seen your GP lately?”, could open the topic. A well-meaning, but pointed references to a person’s health could get them to talk about how they are feeling.
- Be respectful: It’s important to let the person know that you care. Listen and respect what the person says. Don’t be judgemental, or give your own views. You don’t have to agree with everything the person says, but be open enough to keep the conversation going.
- Persevere: It may take several attempts at engaging and bringing up the topic to get the person to open up. Sometimes, individuals experiencing mental health issues may think it is transient and may not be convinced they need help. Respect how they feel, but keep the door to more conversations open.
- Encourage them to see the GP: Seeing a GP is so much a part of our routine that most people are not intimidated by the prospect. Encourage the person to discuss their symptoms and emotions with the GP so a start can be made.
- Give them hope: This is one of the most important feelings your friend should leave with. Either by sharing stories of others and making the person feel no stigma, or talking about the support available, you will give the person hope.
Starting with the GP:
The journey to recovery always starts with your GP. This professional has known you the longest and besides your medical history, could also be conversant with your circumstances. Also, familiarity with the GP enables a person to open up. The GP is the best person to diagnose the severity of the problem. It may take more than one appointment, but the GP will know the way forward.
- If the GP thinks it is a relatively simple problem the treatment will usually be prescription medicine and regular monitoring.
- Based on the diagnosis, the GP could prepare a Mental Health Treatment Plan, or could refer you to a psychiatrist for an assessment and management plan. The decision to expand care to other mental health professionals lies with the GP, so make sure that that you have provided your GP with necessary information.
- Based on needs, the GP and allied health professionals will start treatment (Medicare covers initially six and then another four) that could involve more assessments and therapy sessions.
Online and community support:
Given the widespread and urgent nature of the problem, there are several support services. Besides government funded helplines for those with suicidal thoughts, not-for-profits also provide vital support. There are organisations like Beyond Blue, Mindframe and several others who offer patients general advice on the pathway to treatment, education and awareness for institutions and online resources. They can also connect you to community support groups so you don’t feel alone.
For those with mild anxiety or depression, or for those who live in remote parts with limited access to mental health professionals, online support and therapies are also available. But discuss these with your GP first.
Mental health in the workplace and public institutions:
Some occupations carry a higher risk of mental health issues. For example, armed forces and law enforcement. But for the rest of us, the workplace provides an intellectually stimulating and socially happy environment. Or it should. Companies can now implement plans to ensure that the environment they provide does not trigger or worsen mental health issues employees may have. In some cases, these plans help companies to create a supportive environment. Ultimately, these organisations benefit from more productive workers.
The Australian government’s KidsMatters programme, and Beyond Blue’s MindsMatter, SenseAbility and thedesk are all aimed at helping vulnerable and affected students seek help. There is a lot of support and resources available for mental health issues. So if you think you may be affected, pick up the phone and make an appointment with your GP.