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5 signs you're having more than just a 'bad week', according to a mental health doctor.

Living life in 2021 is enough to make anyone feel out of sorts. 

Between the pandemic, last year's civil unrest, political battles, protests and the discussion surrounding silent victims of depression (see: the Royals interview), it’s not a huge surprise that many people’s mental health has taken a whack.

"There’s been a lot out there in the media these past few weeks about mental health, and mental struggles, and let's face it - not all of it’s been positive," said medical doctor and psychiatry resident Dr Kieran Kennedy

"The royal interview is a clear cut example of a woman stepping into her story and bravely outing the mental struggles she’s gone through. 

"As a mental health professional, this struck me as a really powerful and incredibly important moment, however the reaction to that from some has shown we’ve still got a long way to go when it comes to acceptance and awareness for mental health."

The fact is that almost half of all Australians will experience some form of mental illness in their lives - which is a pretty sobering thought. But for something so normal and expected, a lot of people still feel shame in seeking professional help.

And while it's easy to downplay your feelings and pass them off as a 'bad week' or a 'bad month', waiting to see if things will just get better on their own often only makes things... *checks notes*... a thousand times worse.

Watch: Here are 5 lifestyle hacks to help with your anxiety. Post continues below.


Video via Mamamia

If you you're feeling worried, sad, depressed, anxious or just 'not yourself', well, it’s a pretty good indicator that you need to speak with someone. And we know it can seem 11/10 scary to ask someone for help - but trust yourself, friend.

To make it easy, we've broken down all the warning signs and how to start looking for help.

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What are the warning signs of poor mental health?

Mental health issues can be fickle. Because how do you figure out if what's going on in your head is ‘normal’? What kinds of thoughts, behaviours and feelings are *actually* red flags?

"When it comes to our mental health there are things we can be watching out for, keeping an eye on and (on the flip side) then doing on the mental side of things just like we do the physical," said Dr Kennedy. 

Listen: The Quicky investigates how many of us are using medication to help treat our mental health issues, how it works, and what we can do to break down the stigma surrounding this form of treatment. Post continues below.

Because as we said before - the earlier you can pinpoint your mental health struggles, the earlier you can put a plan in action and start building a new path. You don't need to wait until it's "bad" to ask for help. That's silly talk.

"There’s an age old belief that mental health and struggles aren’t something we need to really think about until it’s “bad enough to see someone” (how often have we said this to ourselves, or heard someone else say it?) - but that’s simply just not true."

"Just like physical niggles, pains or changes, we need to be checking in with our doctor, psychologist or a trusted loved one if we’re noticing shifts on the mental side too," said Dr Kennedy.

While changes in mood, anxiety or emotions are some obvious signs that something's up, there some other lesser- known signs of mental struggles that could indicate rad flags. 

So, here's what to look out for:

1. Sleep shifts.

"This one is really common, and people are often actually surprised when I explain how central sleep is to what’s going on with our mood, stress levels and mental health overall."

For example, if you find it harder to fall asleep, toss and turn more, wake up throughout the night or just feel less rested in the morning (that feeling that you can't wait to go to bed when you've just woken up) - this isn't something to dismiss.

For some weird reason, fatigue is something that's been normalised. It's just part and parcel or, y'know, life - right? 

Nah. Big nope.

While it's easy to think you just need an extra coffee or you need to go to be earlier, if you feel tired all the time that’s a sign something isn’t right.

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2. Physical changes.

Physical pain and aches might be considered a whole separate deal to mental health, but they're actually closely connected. Yep, really!

"Any new physical pain or symptom should always prompt a check in with your doctor regardless, but it’s important for our mind that we listen to our body," said Dr Kennedy.

"Modern psychiatry knows so much more now about how strongly the mind and body are connected - it’s not uncommon for anxiety or trauma in particular to be expressed through the body." 

Dr Kennedy said that pain such as "tummy upsets, flutters in the chest, sweats, headaches, muscle tension and even physical pain can all be early warning signs that the mind is really struggling underneath."  

3. Feeling disconnected.

"Dissociation is when the mind starts to separate itself from the world around it when that world starts to feel too much," explains Dr Kennedy.

Some sufferers, according to Dr Kennedy, feel an odd sense of being ‘untethered’ or ‘disconnected’ from what’s going on at work, at home or in our relationships - early warning sign the mind throws out to help us cope.

"Feeling suddenly overwhelmed, unable to think or just a vague sense of not being present can all be subtle signals of mental strain."

4. Recklessness.

In some cases, reckless behaviour indicates more than just poor choices - it could be a sign of mental health struggles.

"This is one we don’t talk about enough, but the “who cares” or “screw it” mind note can be another lesser known flag that we’re starting to struggle," said Dr Kennedy.

"An increase in risk taking or recklessness (whether it’s with work, spending, drinking or even sexual relationships) might represent that under the surface we’re seeking an escape and a way to keep ourselves distracted from mental pain."

5. A shorter fuse.

While expressing anger in a healthy way can be a good thing, a very short emotional shelf life can be a sign that you’re suffering from something more serious – such as stress or depression

"Studies show we’re much more likely to assume things like irritability or impatience are down to character flaws (both in ourselves as well as others), but these can actually be little known warning signs when it comes to mental health."

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We know - these days there are A LOT of different things that can cause you to become frustrated, angry and stressed out (whether it's work, relationships, or the general s**t storms life throws at you), but how do we know when it's having a toxic effect on our lives? How do you know if you're more short-tempered than you should be?

"Whether it's unresolved trauma, anxiety or depression, feeling our fuse is somehow shorter and we’re more irritable and impatient than usual can be a sign the brain is using a lot of background energy underneath," said Dr Kennedy.

"When we’re (even unconsciously) working hard to keep things afloat, the amount of processing power to even little things we’d normally cope well with can really take a hit."

What do you do if any of these symptoms sound familiar?

"As a psychiatry doctor who’s passionate about really making a change in how we see, talk about and reach out when it comes to mental health, there are some things we really need to call out." 

If you’re struggling right now, here's what Dr Kennedy wants you to know:  

You’re not alone.

While the conversation around mental health has experienced a shift in recent years, there's still a blanket of taboos that are slowly being crushed - but we're not quite there yet.

"The myth of mental illness and the stigma that surrounds it has long stuck to the line that this isn’t 'normal' or 'natural'," said Dr Kennedy.

"For far too long those who’ve moved through mental struggles have been made to feel that something about them was fundamentally different and not right."

If you’re struggling, it's important to know that you’re not alone - in fact you're anything but.

"Nearly a quarter of the population are going through depression or anxiety, and recent stats have shown that up to half of all Australians will have a significant mental struggle at some point in their lives. 

"With COVID-19 and lockdowns, we’re already seeing those numbers rise. You are not alone."

It’s not your fault, or your flaw.

No one just ~chooses~ to have a mental health issue. 

"Mental illness has always come with a moral attachment, but it’s a flat out lie that things like anxiety, depression or mental struggles are any sign of weakness, fault or flaw."

Just like physical illnesses or diagnoses, anyone struggling with their mental health should know that it "isn’t a point of blame, shame or personal failing." 

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"Modern medicine now knows much more about the determinants of mental illness than we ever did before - it’s a complex mix of genetics, biology, past experience and environment. One thing it’s categorically not however, is a choice or character flaw."  

Judgement is so much more about them, than you.  

"In just the past week we’ve seen mental health stigma at its worst," said Dr Kennedy. "We've seen Meghan Markle’s brave admissions being questioned, silenced and labelled mistruths which all comes down to invalidation and judgment."

It’s important to remember that this kind of judgment and invalidation surrounding mental health (when someone denies you a sense of your own reality or story - crazy, we know) says much more about them than you.

"Humans often project their own discomfort and fears onto others, and when it comes to people feeling judged and blamed for mental health, this plays a huge role."

Interesting.

Small changes can make big impacts.  

Feeling powerless or unable to exert change within ourselves are common when it comes to struggling with mental health," said Dr Kennedy. So it becomes really important to know that taking even the teeniest of baby steps can make a HUGE difference.

"I love talking to patients about this, and for many it’s empowering to know that little everyday things can really make a difference." 

"Focusing on protecting things like sleep, getting some movement/exercise every day, a balanced diet and making time for even a short mindfulness exercise or some breath work really can help us move through times of high stress, loss, change or mental struggle." 

Recovery can, and does, happen.

According to Dr Kennedy, another dangerous myth when it comes to mental health is that things will never change or get better. This is untrue.

"It’s a part of how the mind can make us feel when we’re moving through it (a breakup, high stress or grief can feel, in the moment, like they’ll last forever), but it’s also part of the stigmatised narrative the world’s created about mental health." 

"Holding onto hope, and knowing that statistics show the majority of people will get better and improve, is really important here. If you’re struggling right now, you can and will find yourself again."  

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When should I see someone about my mental health?

If any of the above symptoms sound familiar, or the way you're feeling is affecting your day-to-day life, it might be time to speak to a professional about your mental health. 

The easiest way to do this is to see a GP and basically lay everything out on the table. Explain how your feeling and tell them about everything you've had going on, and they'll be able to determine what the best move is - whether it's a referral to a psychologist, or an online counselling program. 

"Rates of presenting for help or making an appointment for our mental health still lie far below those for physical illness, so it’s vital we call this one out."

The first thing you need to do is to step away from thinking that your mental health issue is only something you seek help for it it's "bad enough". Don't do that, ok?

"It’s really normal to feel nervous and unsure about when to call it and tell someone you’re struggling or make that appointment with your GP to get the ball rolling."

"One of the most common questions I get asked in clinic or on social media is something along the lines of, “how do I know if it’s more than just a bad week or a stressful month?”. A fair question, because this stuff is tricky."

To help clear things up a bit, here's Dr Kennedy's guide to help you know when you should reach out for help, call a help line or make an appointment with your doctor: 

  • If a feeling has lasted for more than two weeks.

  • If changes in your mood, emotions or stress levels are getting to the point where you can’t do the things you need to or normally would (work, at home, with family, socially).

  • If symptoms are really intense or feel (at times) unbearable.

  • If there are physical symptoms alongside (like tummy troubles, racing heart, sweats, pains).  

  • If you’re no longer enjoying the things you normally do or just can’t get a rise out of anything.  

  • If thoughts (or actions of course) around self harm or suicide are present in any form at all.  

  • If you’ve suffered a mental health diagnosis in the past and you’re noticing warning signs for it happening again.  

"Far and away my biggest tag-line here is that if you’re asking yourself the question, then that’s the right time to reach out and consult a professional," said Dr Kennedy.

"There is zero shame or blame, and whether you think it’s too early, too late or anywhere in-between, your doctor will be thankful that you’ve reached out." 

If you are under the age of 25, you can contact your local headspace centre, which offers free and confidential treatment.

If any of your symptoms include suicidal or homicidal thoughts, then contact 000 or your local emergency health service.

If you think you may be experiencing depression or another mental health problem, please contact your general practitioner or in Australia, contact Lifeline 13 11 14 for support or beyondblue 1300 22 4636.

Feature image: Getty

What are some practices or tools you like to use to help improve your mental health? Share with us in the comment section below.