How to Recognize a Mental Health Crisis — and What You Can Do to Help
The signs of mental illness can be subtle, and the stigma can stop people from reaching out — here’s how you can help
Each year, 1 in 5 adults experience mental illness. It’s incredibly common, yet it still has a negative stigma that stops people from speaking out and sharing their experience.
That stigma is what PEOPLE wants to change with Let’s Talk About It, a new initiative to normalize mental illness with honest stories from ordinary people and celebrities, along with resources to find help.
Recognizing mental illness is the first step in making a change, and something that can be difficult to spot. Stephen Schueller, assistant professor of psychological science at UC Irvine and executive director of PsyberGuide, a directory of mental health apps, says to look for “major shifts in interest, motivation, or behavior.”
“This might take the form of either seeing yourself or a loved one no longer doing the things they used to do or enjoy, change the way they are spending their time or being less socially-involved,” he tells PEOPLE.
Brandon Staglin, president of One Mind, a brain health research group, adds that the early warning signs of severe mental illness often come in adolescence or early adulthood.
“Such signs include worsening performance in school or work, withdrawal from activities they once enjoyed, and withdrawal from relationships,” he says.
For Staglin, that sudden disinterest in past activities was one of the signs of his schizophrenia.
“When I was on the verge of my first episode of schizophrenia at age 18, I lost interest in my favorite hobbies at the time, reading and playing video games, and spent most of my time alone, driving around without aim or hiking on local trails,” he tells PEOPLE. “My growing anxieties about my worth as a human being, right at the time when I was trying to define myself as an adult, were behind these changes in my behavior.”
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Though it may be tough, the best way to talk to someone about their mental health is to directly ask if they’re okay, says Ashley Womble, director of communications and a crisis counselor for the Crisis Text Line.
“Always ask!” she says. “If you’re concerned about a loved one, it’s important for you to tell them why and make it easier for them to ask for help or support. Suffering is hard enough. You can make it easier by starting the conversation.”
Staglin says that his father’s frank, but caring approach helped him.
“During my first episode of schizophrenia, I was feeling very depressed about my future, and unable to feel love for others,” he says. “My father noticed my withdrawn mood and told me, ‘There’s a lot of love coming from here, Brandon.’ His reassurance reminded me how much I wanted to feel that love for my family and galvanized my will to get well.”
Adds Schueller: “Never underestimate the power of genuine and emphatic words.”
But make sure to reach out in a safe environment.
“It’s helpful to do it at a time and place that is appropriate so that the loved one feels like they have the safety and opportunity to share,” Schueller says. “Maybe if you cannot find that space, you might start by sharing that you’re there for them and would be willing to find some time to talk if that would be helpful to them.”
It can be even tougher for people experiencing mental illness to self-reflect and reach out for help themselves. Staglin says that it was hard to admit that he couldn’t overcome his mental health challenges on his own. What helped, he says, was thinking about what he would do for friends going through a similar experience.
“Think to yourself: If a friend or loved one came to me asking for help, how would I respond? Most likely, you’d help them in a heartbeat, because you care about them. It’s just like that for you,” he says. “Your family and friends care about you. Talk with those people. Describe what you’re experiencing. As I found when a friend helped me get to a psychiatric hospital during my first episode of schizophrenia, seeking the help of others can be the first step toward the wellbeing you deserve.”
In the years after he was first diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1990, Staglin has learned, through trial and error, how to manage the illness with medication and cognitive therapy.
“Mental Health America that provides an extensive set of screeners to help people determine if they might be experiencing a mental health issue,” Schueller says. “These screeners are also followed by a wealth of information to help people find effective care.”
And Crisis Text Line is available 24/7 for free support from trained crisis counselors. They text with around 5,000 people a day who are dealing with everything from stress over schoolwork to suicidal moments. As part of the Let’s Talk About It initiative, PEOPLE is partnering with the Crisis Text Line — if you or someone you know needs help, text STRENGTH to 741741.