Tips on signs to look for and how to support loved ones
MORGANTOWN — The past year has been a hard one.
Many people have found themselves struggling to maintain mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic, and those who might not face mental health issues themselves likely know and care for someone who does.
With local counseling services running wait lists and some individuals having no experience with conditions like depression or anxiety, it can be difficult to determine the appropriate course of action when a friend, family member, roommate or significant other begins to show signs of mental health decline.
Local therapists discussed signs to watch for, ways to be supportive and how to approach the topic of mental health when one suspects a loved one might be suffering.
Jeneice Shaw, staff psychologist and outreach coordinator at the West Virginia University Carruth Center, said it is important to be on the lookout for significant changes in a loved one’s behavior or personality, if the state of their mental health has become a concern.
According to Shaw, a decrease in communication, lack of usual presence on social media, self-isolation, changes in eating or hygiene habits, or lower energy levels can all be signs of depression.
“If they just seem generally more tired or they’re leaning more on coping skills that might not necessarily be healthy — drinking a whole lot more than they used to, things like that — or you find that they’re not eating as much or they’re eating way more than they used to, any big changes one way or another, I think it’s just important to pay attention to those and sort of think about that with them,” Shaw said.
Shaw said approaching the topic of a person’s mental health can be tough, and it is important to do so in a way that avoids triggering a defensive reaction or unnerves them.
Shaw recommended calmly pointing out behavioral changes in the person and asking, “Are you OK?” or “Is there something going on that you want to talk about?”
“Sometimes when people are feeling depressed and anxious, it can come on slowly, and they won’t even notice how differently they’ve been or won’t realize other people have noticed this, and by sharing these things it can prompt them to [admit] ‘You know, no, I haven’t been feeling the greatest, and this is what’s been going on.’ It gives them the space to open up a little bit more,” Shaw said.
After it is determined a person is struggling with a mental health issue, the worry and concern will not just disappear. One might be willing to provide assistance or support to the struggling individual, but making that decision raises the question of how.
Audrey Lutz, clinical therapist at Women in Balance & Children in Balance in Morgantown, said the hardship created by the wait lists many local counseling services face can be eased by discussing ways in which one can offer support.
“[You can] come up with a check-in plan by offering to provide daily texts or call times. [You] can also look into free online support groups until [they’re] able to get in for an individual session,” Lutz said.
One might not anticipate a family member or friend just isn’t prepared to accept his or her state or the offer of support. This can be even more worrisome.
“If the family or friend is not in the category of safety is a concern, they may just be in denial and aren’t ready to seek help,” Lutz said. “I would say then it may be helpful for the concerned individual to maybe seek therapy themselves just to process their own emotions about it and gain awareness around co-dependence if that applies.”
Jasmine Pritts, another therapist at Women in Balance & Children in Balance, suggested making sure one is taking care of oneself as best as possible prior to extending an offer of support.
If you’re sure you’re capable of providing extensive support for another person, it is important to create a comfortable, communicative environment.
“If we demonstrate a sense of openness and non-judgmental listening, it might feel safer for a loved one to open up,” Pritts said. “It can be helpful to communicate that you are ready to listen whenever they feel safe and comfortable talking. Recognize that it is not an easy thing to be vulnerable about and not everyone is as comfortable as we might be talking about our mental health.”
Pritts said it is crucial to recognize the power of language, and to understand that it’s not always a matter of an individual “not wanting help” or “not wanting to work on their mental health,” but instead a matter of feeling overwhelmed and unsure of how to approach their situation.
In some instances, the rejection of professional help or refusal to open up to others can cause concern, that there may be a heavier underlying issue.
Stephanie Cox, licensed psychologist and associate professor with WVU Medicine’s Department of Behavioral Medicine and Psychiatry, listed several behaviors that could indicate a loved one may be experiencing suicidal thoughts or suicidal ideation.
“If a person is expressing more serious concerns that they’re thinking about self-harm, or their depression or anxiety has really gotten to the place where they’re feeling really helpless, that might look like talking about suicide, talking about dying, harming oneself or feeling very preoccupied with death,” Cox said.
Cox said a person considering suicide might express feeling like a burden to others or feelings of self-hatred, act impulsively or dangerously, increase substance use, begin to say goodbye to people in their life, or start to seek out methods through which to commit suicide.
“If a person is having any symptoms, even well before they get to that place, the best thing to do would be to suggest a connection with their primary care provider, because that might be a familiar health professional … that can also be a good point to start thinking about what would be the best for recovery,” Cox said.
If a loved one ultimately needs to be admitted to an inpatient treatment program for mental health reasons, Cox said the most important thing to do is continue to be supportive and understanding while remembering to take care of oneself as well.
Lutz said it is crucial to act accordingly if a loved one begins to express thoughts of suicide or self-harm.
“If [you] feel the friend or family member is a danger to themselves, [you] can always call 911 and inquire to have a welfare check completed to assure the friend or family member is OK,” Lutz said. “This would help alleviate feelings of worry and assure they are OK.”