Naming the problem
The terms “nervous breakdown” and “mental breakdown” are often used to describe people who are at the end of their rope. But they aren’t clinical diagnoses and mental health professionals don’t use those terms.
“I steer people away from using that terminology because I think it has a negative connotation to it,” says psychologist Adam Borland, PsyD. “People often have very valid reasons to feel overwhelmed, but those terms imply that it’s a personal weakness or failing, which it’s not.”
Instead, mental health issues are often the result of a mood disorder such as depression, an anxiety disorder or simply feeling overwhelmed by the stress of life.
What are the warning signs?
Generally speaking, significant changes in behavior or functioning are sometimes a cause for concern. Watch for these signs:
• Feelings of hopelessness and helplessness
• Withdrawing from others
• Losing interest in activities or hobbies
• Changes in sleep patterns or appetite
• Periods of uncontrollable crying or emotional numbness
• Problems with hygiene, housekeeping or work performance
• Racing thoughts
• Panic attacks
• Feeling easily overwhelmed or overstimulated
• Feelings of dread or impending doom
• Increased irritability or anger
• Preoccupation with thoughts of death or dying
• Thoughts of suicide
How can you help?
Listen. One of the most important steps you can take is just to offer your loved one or friend a listening ear.
Don’t try to offer solutions or tell them to look at the bright side of things, Dr. Borland says. Just listen and offer empathy.
You can validate their experience by saying things like, “You really have a lot on your plate. I can see why you feel so overwhelmed.” Or, “Those panic attacks sound scary. I’m sorry that’s happening to you.”
Ask how you can help. Unsolicited advice is the last thing someone wants when they’re struggling emotionally.
Questions like “Have you tried exercising/meditating/taking a vitamin/getting on meds?” are more like to annoy than help.
Instead, simply ask the person what they need. For example, you might ask: “Is there anything I can do to make this easier for you?”
Or make specific suggestions about what you might do to help, rather than what they should do differently. You might ask: “Would it help if I took the kids out tonight so you can have a couple of hours to yourself?”
Refer. If you feel that your loved one would benefit from professional help, approach the topic gently.
It’s sometimes a touchy subject, especially if they’ve never talked to a therapist or doctor about their mental health before. People often struggle to admit that they can’t handle everything on their own.
Here are two examples of what you might say:
“You really seem to be struggling lately and I’m worried about you. How would you feel about talking to your doctor about what you’re going through?”
Or, “I know the idea of going to therapy is kind of scary, but I really think it might help you. I did some research and found some therapists near here who specialize in anxiety. Can I help you make an appointment?”
If your friend or loved one isn’t ready, don’t argue. Wait a while and then gently suggest again.
What if you think it’s an emergency?
If you’re concerned that your loved one is thinking about suicide — or they’ve stated that they are — make a stronger case for getting professional help.
Although suicide is a scary topic, it’s important not to panic.
Encourage your loved one to share more about what they’re feeling, even if it’s difficult to hear. Let them know that it’s important that they talk to a professional as soon as possible.
If you feel that your loved one is in immediate danger of making a suicide attempt, offer to take them to the closest emergency room.
Helping a loved one with mental health struggles is often challenging. But your support may help pave the way to recovery.