Could you spot depression in a loved one? What about an anxiety disorder, alcohol abuse or a prescription drug habit? And if you did suspect one of these serious mental health issues, would you know how to help?

According to a survey of nearly 4,600 people conducted by researchers at Michigan State University, most Americans don’t know enough about these four critical mental health problems to react to a loved one in need…

  • Two-thirds of respondents couldn’t spot depression.
  • 54% couldn’t identify that a description of symptoms was anxiety.
  • Although 63% could recognize signs of alcohol abuse, the majority thought self-help was the best way to handle it.
  • 68% identified prescription drug misuse, but only 30% thought professional help was needed to treat it.

With all the recent attention being paid to suicide and various types of addiction, it’s hard to understand how this can still be. However, while there’s greater intellectual understanding that mental illness is a medical condition that can and should be treated, the social stigma surrounding it persists. That stigma keeps some people from seeking help for their loved ones in need or even from admitting when a spouse’s, friend’s or child’s behavior, such as drinking alcohol, has crossed the threshold from lifestyle choice to problem.


Knowledge and awareness will help you help your loved ones.

Know the classic symptoms…

  • Depression: Feelings of sadness and hopelessness, trouble concentrating, a change in eating habits, insomnia, muscle aches and fatigue.
  • Anxiety: A change in sleep habits, fatigue, muscle aches, restlessness, worrying and an inability to concentrate.
  • Alcohol abuse: Frequent bouts of drinking, using alcohol despite knowing the negative consequences and missing or falling behind on work, school or home obligations.
  • Prescription drug misuse: Taking more medication than prescribed, seeking prescriptions from multiple doctors, changes in sleep, mood swings and making bad decisions.

Express your concerns to your loved one. If you notice any of these symptoms, suggest that he/she talk to a professional. Reassure him that the problem is a medical issue that can be treated.

Help find the right mental health specialist. Look for a psychologist, social worker, marriage and family therapist, counselor or psychiatrist trained to treat the specific problem your loved one is experiencing. If you’re unsure of where to begin, make your loved one’s primary care doctor your starting point. Offer to go along to the first appointment.

Suggest a support group. It can be valuable for your loved one to see firsthand that he isn’t the only person going through this situation.

Act quickly if you suspect your loved one is thinking about suicide. Be up front and ask whether suicide is on his mind. The answer doesn’t have to be a clear yes for you to be alarmed. His having any thoughts about suicide should prompt you to seek help. For example, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK for advice, or for your loved one to talk with a counselor. Of course, if you suspect suicide might be imminent, take more drastic action and call 911 and don’t leave your loved one alone while waiting for EMTs to arrive to take him to a hospital for an evaluation.