When a family member is ill, we want to provide soothing words and chicken soup with the assurance that they'll be up and about again in no time. But what if the signs of illness aren't physical? The symptoms of mental illness can be subtle and easy to overlook but can be just as devastating, and even deadly.
All of us may experience a period of depression in our lives. However, prolonged or severe depression wreaks havoc in the lives of the sufferers and those that care for them. A severely depressed person exhibits lethargy, an inability to deal with normal stressors, significant change in appetite, and a marked personality shift. If allowed to continue unchecked, the person may become suicidal. Talking, writing, and reading about suicide are common factors in those considering that option. Giving away prized possessions and writing a will or good-bye notes to loved ones are signs of imminent danger and emergency help should be enlisted immediately.
Though some anxiety is normal, those who experience it to levels that impair their normal functioning should be treated by a psychiatrist. Acute anxiety can result in a "panic attack" that often mimics the physical sensations of a heart attack and can be very disturbing to the sufferer and those who witness it. If anxiety and intense fears that are out of proportion to the situation prevent your loved one from doing their normal activities, seek professional help.
Self-injury is a sign of intense internal conflict and pain. This can manifest in relatively minor ways, such as lip biting and hair pulling, or in severe ways like cutting through skin and tissue, burning themselves, and even breaking bones. Though this is not necessarily symptomatic of suicidal thinking, it is serious and requires immediate medical attention.
There are some mental illnesses, like schizophrenia, that do not manifest themselves until the late teens or early twenties. Hallucinations, inappropriate emotional responses (laughter in a horror film, extreme anger when the doorbell rings, etc), and paranoia are hallmarks of this disease.
Above all, if you think your loved one may need the help of a psychiatrist, talk to them about it. Though they may seem defensive, underneath they will probably be relieved that you have taken notice. Feeling alone is an overwhelming experience even for those that are completely healthy. Knowing that you are going to face this together, and get help for them together, may just be the first step on the road to mental wellness.