Mental Health: How Do I Know When Things are Starting to Slide?

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Ahh, mental health. A complex issue that is in societal consciousness more and more in recent years. It is, perhaps, more needed now during this never-ending pandemic (why hello Omicron!) than it ever was before. One only has to know how long the wait list is for psychiatry services in Saskatoon (super long!) to know how valuable those professionals and services are. 

So, how do we know when things are starting to slide with our mental health? I have found from years of working with clients that it is not always apparent when things start to decline. Things can be really great and then, seemingly just like that, they’re really bad. Sometimes people aren’t able to recognize the factors that contribute to their mental health decline until they have reached the crisis point. 

Factors that could include:

  • Disrupted sleep cycle: getting too little or too much sleep.
  • Spending too much time engaging in a hobby; to the point where it becomes a way to escape life instead of brief periods of enjoyment in between your life activities. 
  • Avoidance; avoiding following through on hygiene or self-care activities, avoiding people, or avoiding things on your daily to-do list. 
  • Excessive self-care. Becoming obsessive about engaging in self-care to the point that if you miss a day, you’re beating yourself up about it and seeing that as a total failure. 
  • Poor motivation and/or decreased energy levels. Or just the opposite: a marked increase in energy levels, rate of speech, racing thoughts, etc which could indicate mania. 
  • Pursing unrealistic goals before you’re ready. For example, focusing on obtaining materialistic things as a way to solve a problem, or fixating on an unattainable goal that does not match your current life circumstances. This could relate to non-acceptance; for example, feeling you should (beware of should statements!) be doing better than you are and trying to force a goal that’s not right for you or your timeline.
  • Becoming irritable or snappy with others. Maybe you’ve been working too hard and not taking enough time for yourself and it’s now coming out in the way you interact with others. 
  • Resorting to negative coping skills: self-harm, substance use, risk-taking behaviors. 
  • Disordered eating patterns: decreased appetite; not feeling hungry or cycles of binge eating.
  • Social isolation (thanks to COVID, we’ve all had more than enough of this!). However, if you find yourself shying away from activities you used to enjoy, even during the pandemic, this could be a red flag. 
  • Missing appointments with your healthcare providers. 
  • Not taking medications. This is a more obvious one. But even missing a day or two of meds can affect your sleep, your emotions/mood, and overall level of functioning. 

Of course, there are many more we could list here but I think some of these encapsulate less obvious signs that people may not recognize as indicators that their mental health may be declining. For example, engaging in a hobby seems like self-care, however, if you’re spending 10 hours straight playing video games it may no longer be a healthy distraction. It can be difficult to connect the dots for ourselves personally and at times, potentially more obvious to those around us. 

Try thinking about what makes you feel good. How do you know when you feel good? What does a typical day look like when you’re feeling mentally well? Are you engaging in physical exercise, hobbies, and self-care? Do you feel good around certain people? 

Exploring what makes you feel good can be a way to flag for yourself when things start to change. For example, “okay I know when I’m connecting with my friends I’m feeling good and things are okay. When I start to cancel plans or not want to hang out, I can tell my mood is starting to change.” 

By knowing what your flags are, you can potentially stop the spiral before things get too far down. And of course, always remember that help is available. Whether it is counselling, doctors, medications, programming and services, crisis agencies, etc, there IS help. The help might look a bit different because of the pandemic, but it is still there. Reach out for help when you need it. Sometimes that can be the hardest step. 

Amber Fortowsky RSW, BSW

Amber has been a practicing social worker in Saskatoon since 2008. She has worked in the non-profit sector as well as with the Saskatchewan Health Authority in various roles. She also spent several years working in the area of Mental Health and Addictions.

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