Each of us faces emotional difficulties from time to time. Feelings of sadness or loss and extremes of emotions are typical responses to the complexities of life. The realization that you or a loved one may need to seek professional attention for behavior and/or emotional management can be painful, frightening, invalidating, embarrassing and oftentimes parents may feel like they have failed. Before seeking professional attention it is common for people to solicit advice from friends, family members, colleagues, and/or the internet. Conflicts in personal and professional relationships are inevitable and oftentimes do not warrant a diagnosis of “personality disorder.” Fear of public speaking does not mean one has a social anxiety disorder. So the question remains, when does a behavior warrant a mental health diagnosis? For example, when does shyness become social phobia? When does being overly cautious speak to a bigger problem?
Oftentimes, it can be tough to diagnose a behavior as a mental health illness. It is very difficult to assign a diagnosis to an individual during the first therapy session; especially with more severe mental health illnesses such as, but not limited to Major Depressive Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, Schizophrenia or Personality Disorder. Clinicians are placed in difficult positions as diagnoses must be assigned during the initial assessment for the purposes of billing insurances. How much do we know about an individual after spending 1-2 hours with him or her for an initial assessment? For these reasons, multiple factors must be taken into consideration before one is given a mental health diagnosis.
Mental health Illness Vs. Developmentally Appropriate Behavior?
What to look for:
Duration: How long has an individual presented with the symptoms? How often are the symptoms present? Are the symptoms consistent? Are there signs of improvement? Obsessive hand-washing or drinking too much alcohol may be signs of a mental health condition. Also, consider the context of the symptoms. For example, is the individual experiencing the recent loss of a loved one, transitioning to a new job, location, etc? If symptoms such as sadness, irritability, changes in sleep patterns, appetite and/or isolation are consistently present in various settings over the course of a few weeks and getting in the way of daily living activities one should seek professional attention.
Intensity: Feelings of sadness, hopelessness, irritability and anger are normal reactions to the ups and downs of life. We may find ourselves feeling hopeless if we lose our job, sad after a break up or the death of a loved one, irritable with our spouse or children, angry after an argument with a loved one. These emotions can become a problem when we consistently lose control of managing them and they manage us. How does your behavior influence your relationship with others? Are people afraid to spend time with you? Have loved ones consistently expressed their concern about your well-being? If any of the aforementioned emotions or behaviors are frightening or concerning to an individual or others around them, seeking professional attention may be necessary.
Age/Stage of Development: Understanding behavior that is developmentally appropriate given an individual’s age is arguably one of the most important factors in differentiating between mental health illness and developmentally appropriate behavior. Life is full of transitions from childhood to late adulthood. Children struggle from “terrible twos” through adolescence in search of their identity. Young adulthood through middle adulthood also consists of searching for one’s purpose or passion and manifests in intimate relationships in careers. Various changes in relationships, careers and locations are common for this stage of life. “Who Am I” is the question individuals may be searching for from adolescence to middle adulthood include. In late adulthood, one may question, “Did I have a meaningful life?” “Do I have any regrets”? “How did I impact society?” When experiencing the range of emotions and behaviors that accompany the various stages of development, it may appear that one may be suffering from a mental health illness. Changes in behavior due to growth and development are normal. There will be times where behaviors are extreme; but this should be the exception and not the rule. When we understand developmentally appropriate behaviors, we are able to use discernment for behaviors that are normal given an individual’s age. For example, if an individual finds himself or herself in middle-late adulthood consistently displaying behaviors consistent with the adolescence stage; he or she may have unresolved conflict from adolescence that may require the attention of a mental health professional.
With all that being said, you may be wondering if you or a loved one could benefit from a mental health evaluation. Each mental health condition has its own set of signs and symptoms. Professional help may be warranted if you or a loved one are experiencing the following symptoms:
- Marked changes in sleeping and/or eating patterns
- Inability to cope with problems or daily activities
- Strange or grandiose ideas
- Excessive anxiety
- Prolonged depression or apathy
- Thinking or talking about suicide
- Substance abuse
- Extreme mood swings, excessive anger, hostility or violent behavior.
Remember it is important to keep in mind the frequency, duration, intensity of the behaviors and emotions; as well as the stage of development before one is diagnosed with a mental health condition. However, it is also imperative that we do not dismiss the signs and symptoms as a normal part of life and avoid treatment out of fear or shame. If you are concerned about your mental health or the mental health of a loved one, you do not have to suffer alone or in silence, please seek advice.
At HandinHand Counseling Services, LLC, we have licensed therapists trained to administer mental health assessments. We also offer free 15 minute phone consultations. Contact us at 412-414-7782 or 412-607-4805.