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Guest Editorial: Mental Health Awareness Month: How you can help a friend or loved one

Posted: May 22nd, 2015 | Featured, Guest Editorial, Opinion | No Comments

Dr. Michael J. Bailey

Everyone knows that if you have a sore throat or aching back, you can go to the doctor to find out what’s wrong and seek treatment with the hope of a quick recovery. When someone is suffering from a mental health issue, however, it’s not always clear when and where to seek help.

One in five American adults — approximately 43.7 million people — experience a mental illness in a given year. Mental health conditions are often linked to higher risk of suicide, which is a serious problem in our community. The suicide rate in San Diego County increased over the past five years from 12 per 100,000 to 14 per 100,000, which is significantly higher than the national rate of 12.3 per 100,000.

While stress, anxiety, depression and other mental health disorders are widespread and very real, research shows that only about one in three people with a diagnosed disorder is likely to pursue treatment. Often it takes the gentle nudge of a friend or loved one to help these individuals get the help they need to start on the path to recovery.

Many people with mental health concerns might not realize the severity of their condition and continue living with their symptoms because they don’t perceive it as a problem that needs to be addressed. Others might recognize that they need help, but may not know how to seek a solution or be afraid of negative perceptions.

Misconceptions and stigma commonly surround mental health issues, which is why it’s critical that families and friends encourage their loved ones to get professional support when it’s needed. Treatments for mental illnesses are highly effective, and the earlier patients receive them, the faster they can begin recovering and return to living healthy, self-directed lives.

Millions of people in the U.S. have family or friends who suffer from mental illnesses that often go undiagnosed. Here are some signs that may indicate someone needs help:

  • Unusual or irregular behavior. It is important to trust your instincts if you notice behavior that scares you, like a sudden or particularly aggressive temper or behavior that seems out of the ordinary for that person.
  • Problems thinking or focusing. For instance, if a person becomes especially forgetful or appears disoriented or restless.
  • Is the person showing a pattern of hearing or seeing things that others do not?
  • Overly intense feelings. This could be anxiety about a seemingly mundane activity, like leaving the house, or emotional expressions — laughing, crying — that appear excessive or misplaced.
  • Difficulty interacting with others. Is there a sudden appearance or pattern of problems getting along with others at work/school or among family members and friends?
  • A traumatic experience. If a person recently experienced a death, accident or other major life-altering occurrence, it can have a serious impact on their mental health.

If someone in your life may need help addressing a mental health issue, you may want to speak with them about it. Here are some tips to help start that conversation:

  • Show that you are concerned in a way that is not confrontational or judgmental. Let the person know that you care about them, and you’re concerned about recent changes in behavior that you’ve noticed.
  • Keep questions simple. Ask how the person is doing, when they began experiencing these feelings, how you can help provide support, and if the person has thought about seeking help.
  • Offer reassurance and hope. Let the person know that they are not alone, and that you are there to support them in seeking treatment to help them feel better.
  • Avoid phrases that could sound dismissive or accusatory. Although you may not understand what the person is feeling, it is important to only express your support.

Remember that mental health issues impact people regardless of age, gender, ethnicity or socioeconomic level. The good news is that resources are available to help address the problem and make a successful recovery.

People in San Diego County can call the 24-hour/seven-days-a-week Access and Crisis Line at 888-724-7240 to get free, confidential support and referrals for themselves or someone they’re concerned about. Clinicians are available in 150 languages to assist with a variety of needs, including suicide prevention, crisis intervention, community resources, mental health referrals and alcohol and drug support services. In addition, users can access the same help through the Access and Crisis live chat function that allows people to communicate in real time with a mental health professional. Live chat is available Monday-Friday, 4 p.m.-10 p.m. at optumhealthsandiego.com.

A free Youth Mental Health First Aid Session will be conducted in Spanish on May 28 from 8:30 a.m. – 5 p.m. in Kearny Mesa. The eight-hour course is designed to teach parents, family members, caregivers, teachers, school staff, peers, neighbors, health and human services workers and other caring citizens how to help an adolescent (age 12-18) who is in crisis, experiencing a mental health challenge or struggling with addiction.

The following day, May 29, a free Mental Health First Aid for Military & Veterans will be held from 8:30 a.m. – 5 p.m at the Veterans Affairs Mission Valley Clinic. This eight-hour course is designed to focus on the unique experiences and needs of military members, veterans, their family members and those who work with them. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs reports that approximately 22 veterans die by suicide every day. To sign up for one of the free training sessions, visit optumhealthsandiego.com.

—Michael J. Bailey is medical director of Optum San Diego, the county Health & Human Services Agency’s behavioral health provider.

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