How to Help a Loved One Cope with a Behavioral Health Issue

mental health

Millions of people in the U.S. are affected by behavioral health issues, with one in five adults experiencing mental illness and one in 20 experiencing serious illness. Because behavioral health problems are so common, most people will know someone in need of help at some point in their lives.

Watching a family member, friend or loved one struggle with behavioral health issues can be a painful experience. You may feel helpless and uncertain how to support them.

Recognize the signs of a potential problem

“Every behavioral health illness or problem has its own symptoms, and even people with the same illness can experience different symptoms. Furthermore, a number of different illnesses very commonly overlap,” said Benjamen C. Gangewere, DO, Associate Medical Director of Behavioral Health and Psychiatry Residency Program Director at Penn Highlands Healthcare. “There are some common signs that may indicate someone is experiencing a problem, and these signs are worth noting.”

Warning signs of potential mental illness may include the following:

  • Excessive worrying or fear
  • Feeling excessively sad or low
  • Confused thinking or problems concentrating and learning
  • Extreme mood changes, including uncontrollable highs or feelings of euphoria
  • Prolonged or strong feelings of irritability or anger
  • Avoiding friends and social activities
  • Difficulties understanding or relating to other people
  • Changes in sleeping habits or feeling tired and low energy
  • Changes in eating habits such as increased hunger or lack of appetite
  • Changes in sex drive
  • Difficulty perceiving reality, such as delusions or hallucinations
  • Inability to perceive changes in one’s own feelings, behavior or personality
  • Overuse of substances such as alcohol or drugs
  • Multiple physical ailments without obvious causes (such as headaches, stomach aches, vague and ongoing aches and pains)
  • Thinking about suicide
  • Inability to carry out daily activities or handle daily problems and stress
  • An intense fear of weight gain or concern with appearance

Children also experience behavioral health conditions, but it can be harder to identify because they are still learning how to identify and talk about their emotions. Warning signs of a behavioral health issue may include the following:

  • Changes in school performance
  • Excessive worry or anxiety, for instance fighting to avoid bed or school
  • Hyperactive behavior
  • Frequent nightmares
  • Frequent disobedience or aggression
  • Frequent temper tantrums

Start a conversation

It is not always easy to start a conversation with someone you are worried about, but it is the most important step toward getting help.

  • Do not be afraid, but do not feel as though you need to be an expert. You do not have to know everything or have all of the solutions. But if you appear unafraid to talk about difficult subjects, you can help give them the confidence to open up.
  • Start by expressing your concern and let them know that you are here to listen to whatever they may be thinking.
  • Use “I” statements, such as “I am worried about you…” or “I would like you to consider talking to a counselor…” Avoid statements like “You are…,” “You need to” or “You should…” so as to avoid defensiveness.
  • Be patient and caring. Avoid being judgmental.
  • Remind them that seeking help is a sign of strength.

“If a loved one is hesitant to talk to a behavioral health practitioner, encourage them to talk to their primary care provider,” said Dr. Gangewere. “Some people may be more comfortable addressing the situation as they would any other medical condition, such as diabetes or high blood pressure. Also, it may be easier for your loved one to open up to a physician that he or she already knows.”

Know how to get immediate help

If you or an individual is at risk of harming themselves or others, please reach out to the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline by calling 988, texting 988, or accessing chat services.

Penn Highlands Healthcare offers comprehensive behavioral health services, including inpatient and outpatient services for children ages 5 and up, adults and seniors. Penn Highlands’ team includes psychiatrists, clinical psychologists, a neuro-psychologist, physician assistants, licensed clinical social workers and licensed professional counselors. Learn more about behavioral health services at Penn Highlands by visiting