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What is Mental Health and Red Flags for Mental Illness

Updated on August 24, 2013

With all of the talk in the news lately about people suffering from mental illness, you may be asking yourself:

  • What exactly is mental health?
  • Why are some people mentally ill while other people are not?
  • What can we do for people who are mentally ill?
  • How do you know if you are mentally ill or mentally healthy?

As a board-certified psychiatric registered nurse and psychiatric nursing educator, I have worked with thousands of people suffering from mental illness, and I have had the opportunity to take students to the psychiatric hospital where I work to learn from the patients there. There are many misconceptions about what it is like in a mental health hospital and what mentally ill people look like. For more information about this topic, check out my article on “Life Inside a Psychiatric/Mental Hospital.”


What Exactly is Mental Health?

There is a multitude of things mentally healthy people do on a regular basis. To understand mental illness, you must first understand mental health. Here we will look at some of the following factors:

  • Coping skills
  • Hygiene
  • Spirituality
  • Social relationships
  • Work and productivity

Coping Skills

Life is full of stressors. Each and every day, most people encounter at least some stressors. Stressors can be as simple as a crowded supermarket, traffic, arguments with loved ones, and grouchy coworkers. We may be unaware of the different coping skills we use to deal with these stressors, but nonetheless, in some way we are coping. There are two types of coping skills:

  • Adaptive coping skills
  • Maladaptive coping skills

Adaptive Coping Skills

Mentally healthy people most often use adaptive coping skills rather than maladaptive coping skills.

Adaptive coping skills include things like:

  • Talking to a friend to vent your emotions
  • Exercising
  • Getting involved in nature (e.g. bird watching, going to a park)
  • Meditating
  • Praying
  • Counting backwards from 10
  • Deep breathing
  • Separating yourself from the stressor
  • Taking a time out from an argument
  • Empathizing with others
  • Surrounding yourself with people who understand your experiences
  • Taking a hot bath or shower
  • Getting enough sleep
  • Spending time with family
  • Having proper nutrition
  • Being realistic and logical about stressors
  • Problem-solving
  • Being assertive in communication
  • Being able to recognize your positive qualities and being realistic about weaknesses

Most of us use these adaptive coping skills on a regular basis, but it is normal from time to time to struggle with one or more of these. However, coping becomes maladaptive when it is a pattern of behavior rather than an occasional occurrence.


Maladaptive Coping Skills

Maladaptive coping skills include things like:

  • Isolating yourself from loved ones
  • Abusing alcohol and/or drugs
  • Hurting yourself on purpose (e.g. cutting, punching a wall)
  • Skipping personal hygiene (e.g. not brushing your teeth or taking a shower)
  • Overeating or eating to soothe unpleasant feelings
  • Not eating enough
  • Hurting others (e.g. cursing and/or yelling at loved ones, physically hurting others)
  • Skipping work or household duties
  • Ignoring family, including your children
  • Withdrawing from social activities
  • Being aggressive in communication
  • Ignoring problems, hoping or believing they will go away
  • Losing touch with reality through hallucinations or delusions
  • Not finding meaning in any of your life experiences
  • Being very controlling of others
  • Being cruel to yourself in your thoughts (e.g. thinking, “I am failure, and I will never succeed.”)

Just like mentally healthy people, mentally ill people often do not use all of the maladaptive coping skills all of the time, but they have a strong tendency to use them more frequently than the adaptive coping skills.

How to Help

If you believe a loved one is suffering from a mental illness, there are some things you can do to help.

Talk to them without blaming them. Make sure this conversation is private. Say something like, “I am concerned about you. I love you, and I want you to be happy and healthy. I have noticed that you have been _________________________ (what has the person been doing that made you think there was something wrong). I want to help you get better.”

This is not an easy conversation to have. It may help if you involve other people who are involved closely with the person who is suffering. Remind yourself that much of mental illness is not about choices, but about biological factors (e.g. chemicals, hormones, genetics). You may offer to accompany the person to a doctor’s appointment or help them find a good counselor. Psychiatrists who specialize in the particular problem may be available in your area, but sometimes it requires some research. A good place to start is with the person’s primary care provider. They often have a wealth of information about available resources. Do not be deterred by a lack of income or health insurance. Often there are providers who will offer services based on income rather than charging a flat fee.

Once you have had this conversation and developed a plan, regularly check back with your loved one in a non-intrusive manner. Tell them you are going to do this, so it does not seem like an invasion of privacy when you do. Keep in mind that it often takes a lot of time and work to improve mental health. Changes will not occur over night. Try to keep from labeling the person as “crazy,” and do not tell people who are uninvolved or distantly involved about what is going on. Sharing this type of information can be very hurtful to the mentally ill person.

In summary, these are some of the suggested steps for helping a loved one with mental illness:

  1. Talk to him/her about the problem
  2. Include close friends or family, if applicable
  3. Offer to help find a doctor
  4. Offer to go with the person to appointments
  5. Follow-up on progress
  6. Be compassionate and non-blaming
  7. Do not offer excuses to the person if they are not getting the help they need (e.g. Saying, “It’s okay that you skipped your appointment, because you’ve been busy.”) Just like physical health, mental health needs attended to.

*Note: If you are in danger from the mentally ill person, do not meet with him/her privately. Do this in an area where you can keep yourself safe. If you feel physically threatened, call 9-1-1.

If you have tried all of the above steps and nothing is working, talk to your personal healthcare provider about additional options. If the mentally ill person is talking about suicide or homicide and refuses to get treatment, call 9-1-1 or take the person to an emergency room, if you are safe enough to do so. Do not put yourself in harm’s way.

The Polls

Below there are two polls. I hope that you do the polls, and I believe through looking at the results, we can see how common mental illness really is. It is important that mentally ill people not feel isolated, alone, or ostracized.

Do You Know Someone Who is Mentally Ill?

See results

Have you ever worried that you might be mentally ill?

See results

© 2013 Leah Wells-Marshburn


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    • raguett profile image

      raguett 4 years ago

      Thanks for posting this was very useful information.

    • Gail Meyers profile image

      Gail Meyers 4 years ago from Kansas City - United States

      This is a very useful, informative and user-friendly hub. I have shared this one and a couple of others on my Narcissistic Abuse: Echo Recovery Facebook and Google+ pages. Voted up and useful.