How to Know if You Should Seek Mental Health Care

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Mental and behavioral health are receiving more attention than ever before, but many people are still unsure whether mental health services are the right choice for them. 

Whether you think you might have a mental illness or are just going through a rough patch and could use some support, here’s how to tell if mental health services are a good choice for you to pursue.

Mental Health in Our Society

Mental health care and its public perception have come a long way in recent years, but seeking help still carries a stigma for many people. Aspects of mental health care like taking medication and seeking therapy also tend to feel intensely personal, which often means people prefer to keep details about their mental health private. 

While this is understandable, it also means we tend not to discuss seeking help as openly as we would when seeking treatment for a physical injury or asking for help in any other way. This can make it hard to know when it’s time to seek help and what seeking help tends to look like.

For help understanding your mind and what it needs, let’s start by defining what mental health is.

What is Mental Health?

Mental health is the overall level of wellness of how you think, behave, and regulate your feelings. Your mental health impacts your ability to take care of yourself, support and care for your loved ones, pursue your career, enjoy your hobbies, and plan for the future. It even affects your physical health, both from a behavioral and biological standpoint.

It’s common (even normal) for people to see significant changes or hiccups in their mental health over their lifetime.

When Does a Mental Health Slump Become a Disorder or Illness?

When changes in your patterns of thought, feeling, or behavior 1) cause you distress or 2) get in the way of you living your life, that can indicate you may have a mental illness. This includes your ability to:

  • Maintain personal, familial, and/or romantic relationships
  • Function at work or school
  • Healthily navigate social settings
  • Learn and operate at a level expected for your age, intelligence, and abilities
  • Cope with life’s typical challenges
  • Participate in other normal life activities like managing your finances, pursuing hobbies, and enjoying life

As you evaluate whether this list applies to you, take a holistic, well-rounded approach. Factor in your culture, background, socioeconomic status, gender, preferences, and other things that make you unique. What might be normal in one society or social group might be cause for concern in another.

Keep in mind that struggling with mental health throughout periods of your life is completely normal, even if you haven’t explored seeking treatment in the past. Some issues tend to arise at certain ages, life stages, or after stressful or traumatic events. If you’ve noticed a change in your well-being or your ability to face life’s challenges, that isn’t indicative of a failure on your part. Needing support is a completely normal part of life.

Determine your Level of Functioning and Mental State

Are you thriving, managing, struggling, or barely surviving?

Life has ups and downs, but even those natural ebbs and flows can benefit from support to help you get through them. You don’t necessarily need a specific, concrete reason to seek mental health care. Sometimes it can be hard to identify why you’re struggling. That’s okay. Talking to someone can help you figure that out. If you feel like seeking mental health care would help you, it probably would.

Identify your Symptoms

What, if anything, about your mental health is causing you (or your loved ones) concern? This could include any significant changes in your personality, behavior, eating habits, or sleeping patterns. Here are some other things to watch out for:

  • An inability to cope with problems or daily activities
  • Feeling disconnected, withdrawn from, or uninterested in normal activities (especially ones you used to enjoy)
  • Unusual or “magical” thinking
  • Excessive anxiety
  • Prolonged sadness, depression, or apathy
  • Thoughts or statements about suicide, self-harm, or harming other people
  • Abusing substances, including prescription medication
  • Disordered eating
  • Extreme mood swings
  • Problems coping with anger
  • Excessive hostility or violent behavior
  • Significant trouble focusing on daily tasks

Remember, symptoms or mental health concerns can develop or worsen at any point in your life, even if you didn’t previously struggle in that way. Also keep in mind that even if you’ve been handling a problem all your life, that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to live with it your entire life. Just because you can get by without help doesn’t mean you have to (or even that you should).

Identify and Examine your Coping Mechanisms

You might feel like you lead a high-stress life, but are managing those stressors pretty well, all things considered. While weighing the pros and cons of seeking help, make sure that you factor in not only whether you’re getting by, but also whether your struggles might be impacting those around you. This can look like:

  • You’re hanging in there at work, but go home every day just to zone out in front of the TV, playing video games, or scrolling mindlessly through social media. Your loved ones feel like they haven’t gotten adequate quality time with you in a long time.
  • Your relationship with your parents is a source of stress. You keep it together during family events and weekly phone calls, but right after you say good-bye to your parents, you find yourself reaching for whatever snack food you can find. You spend the next few days eating whatever isn’t nailed down.
  • You’ve hit a rough patch as a parent, where you’re no longer sure how to support and discipline your kids as they mature. To cope, you start voicing your frustrations openly to your kids instead of saving vent sessions for your friends and other adults. This breaks down the parent-child boundaries in your family and further complicates things.

If you’re having to rely on unhealthy coping mechanisms to get by, you’re not coping. Seeing a therapist can help you replace those maladaptive coping mechanisms with ones that don’t damage your health or relationships – and they’ll more effectively support you throughout your life.

While considering the impact of your mental health on those around you, try asking yourself these questions:

  • What are you doing to get by?
  • On your worst days, what thoughts, rituals, and actions do you look forward to?
  • How do you cope with inevitable stress, slumps, disappointments, or uncomfortable experiences?
  • Do I feel supported by those around me, or do I feel alienated?

How to Take Action

A good first step is to talk to your primary care doctor, since they know your medical history. They can talk to you about any symptoms you might be dealing with. They’ll also check you for any physical problems that might be causing or contributing to your mental health symptoms. They can help you figure out the next steps if you decide getting help is the right choice for you. It’s also a good idea to reach out directly to a mental health professional to help you determine the best next steps for your situation.

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