Life is a rollercoaster and sometimes, bad patches in life can get us feeling down.
From health problems to relationship and work issues, various events in life can cause enormous stress, affecting one’s thoughts and emotions.
Anyone can suffer from varying degrees of mental illness at any point in life, making it important to recognise these symptoms in ourselves and in others before it develops further.
Additionally, the negative behaviours of our loved ones can also interfere with the mental health of the helper who, if not careful, may slip down the rabbit hole as well.
MOB speaks to consultant and senior lecturer Dr Anasuya Jegathevi Jegathesan on spotting some general warning signs when things may be going wrong in a loved one’s life, along with tips for helpers.
1. Drastic changes in behaviour
Persistent changes and non-productive behaviour that lasts for a prolonged period, such as more than a year, are good indications that something is wrong.
Sleepiness, crying frequently, distancing themselves from friends and loved ones or constantly overworking are some of the signals to look out for.
According to Dr Anasuya, try asking them what is wrong and not, “Do you need counselling?”
Sometimes, people are overwhelmed by a situation and may need family support and not necessarily professional intervention.
2. Identifying good and bad behavioural changes
Is your family member spending more time on Facebook? Or, has he or she recently began clubbing? These changes in behaviour are not necessarily a bad thing.
“When people have behavioural changes that are not affecting their life, lay off,” said Dr Anasuya.
People change for a variety of reasons and not all changes are bad. Changes that cause them to lose respect in their job or in other places are causes for concern.
“Sometimes, people change and become more quiet or more spiritual,” she said.
As long as it does not interfere with their daily functions, such as taking care of the kids or themselves, leave them alone.
3.Increased dependence on external items
Take note if there is increased reliance on external items for comfort or distraction, such as greater intake of alcohol or food, smoking more cigarettes as well as extreme dieting or playing games.
However, an greater dependence does not necessarily mean it is an addiction.
“When someone ‘needs to have’ or ‘has to do’ something before they can feel relaxed, then that can be a sign of dependency,” said Dr Anasuya.
For example, non-drinkers who begin drinking daily may not be consuming high amounts of alcohol but are unable to relax unless they do so.
“When people are getting dependent on something — such as non-smokers who are suddenly smoking or non-drinkers who are drinking — these can be indicators that the individual may be facing problems,” she said.
4. Steep and sharp mood swings
Does a friend who is usually in control of their emotions begin frequently displaying bursts of anger? Having steep and sharp mood swings, such as frequently breaking down in public when one would not ordinarily do so, shows that the person is unable to control their behaviour.
Most people would be able to control themselves in front of people they respect, such as their boss. “Shouting in front of your boss when you would never do that on a daily basis is one such example,” said Dr Anasuya.
“We usually cry in front of people we know but not in front of people whose respect we want, such as a boss,” she said, adding that it is a sign that they are facing problems.
5. Isolating themselves
Take notice when someone starts moving away from things that were healthy for them, such as spending a healthy amount of time with friends or exercising, to doing nothing, for over a year.
However, if a loved one has passed away and the friend is in mourning, it may be best to leave them alone for a year as there may be religious and cultural factors involved. Try asking the friend how they are doing before recommending therapy. Sometimes, friends need a push because they are in a bad place. Encouraging them to meet up with friends can also be a good thing.
6. Feelings of hopelessness
“No matter what I do, nothing changes” or “no matter how hard I try, I will always fail.”
These are some extreme statements of failure that can be a cause for concern for friends and family members and should be taken seriously.
“Making these statements is something to worry about because you’ve taken away something that keep humans alive — hope,” said Dr Anasuya.
7. Inability to cope with normal daily stress
Some of the things that we would normally shrug off, such as loud noises, children laughing or even the sound of a plate breaking, seem to create extreme distress for the individual, showing that the person may have too much going on in life.
“For example, if a colleague accidentally spills coffee on your table, it’s no big deal — you wipe it off and you’re done,” said Dr Anasuya.
“Today, if someone spills coffee on your table and — boom — it takes you over the edge, that can be a sign that there is too much on the person’s plate,” she said, adding that the person may need the help and support of family and friends and not necessarily professional help.
8.Giving away precious personal items
In some cultures, giving away personal items may be the norm but that is not necessarily the case in Malaysia. Notice changes in the friend or family member who has been feeling hopeless or has discussed about being depressed.
“If this person suddenly starts giving away their personal things and is happy about it — please brace yourself. That is not a good sign,” said Dr Anasuya, adding that it could be a sign of suicide. While it may not be easy, it is better to be safe than sorry. Ask them if they are having suicidal thoughts. Discussing it could help the individual.
9. Provide information
Sometimes, no matter how often one tries to offer support or advice to a loved one, their words have no effect on the depressed individual.
Despite moving from one job to another, they face the same issues with each new boss, or may enter one bad relationship after another despite repeated advice from friends and family.
In cases where the individual is in a repeating cycle of negative behaviours, remember that you can only give people information and that you cannot change a person who does not want to be changed.
As the saying goes, “You can lead a horse to water but you cannot make it drink.”
10. Save yourself
“There are people with good intentions who get so invested in helping someone that they forget to help themselves,” said Dr Anasuya, adding that helpers need to know when to take a step back or may end up becoming depressed themselves.
“There are people who would bend over backwards trying to help a depressed person,” said Dr Anasuya.
“For example, if you’ve been chasing a friend at the expense of your happiness and your personal life, you have to put a stop to it.”
“Help someone if you have the ability and freedom to do so, or you’ll end up destroying yourself.”
Otherwise, your personal life, your sleep and performance at school or at work may be at stake.