In these challenging times, it can be difficult to identify if you or a family member is just having a “bad period” or actually may be depressed or suffering from a mental illness – particularly if there’s no history of mental health issues. Here, a doctor in Singapore shares why it’s important to “check in” on your mental wellbeing, depression symptoms to look for, and how to best approach a loved one you’re worried about.
Are you depressed or just going through a tough time right now?
DR NEIL FORREST is a UK-trained GP at Osler Health International, a family GP clinic that offers primary healthcare services to adults, teenagers, children and babies. Over the past year, he has seen a big increase in patients with mental health challenges.
While mental health problems were already common, he says the pandemic has introduced all kinds of new triggers. These include financial uncertainty, fear of infection, blurring of the boundaries between home, school and work, and prolonged separation from friends and family – something that he sees a lot as a doctor in Singapore.
But, at what point does “it’s a tough time” become “I think I need some help”?
Well, it can be hard to tell. Although “poor mental health” and “mental illness” are often used interchangeably, they’re not the same. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), someone can experience poor mental health and not be diagnosed with a mental illness, while someone diagnosed with a mental illness such as depression can experience periods of mental, physical and social wellbeing.
Nevertheless, it’s important to regularly check in with yourself to access how you’re feeling, and check in with loved ones to do the same. Doing so can help you spot any signs that could point to depression symptoms or other mental health problems.
Signs that can may indicate a mental health problem
Although mental health problems can present in many different ways, there are some common symptoms, says Dr Forrest.
Physical symptoms like change in appetite, libido or energy levels are common, and an individual’s weight can change significantly in either direction. Some people notice a change in their emotions or a lack of motivation, with social withdrawal being a very common sign.
So, what are the signs that ‘feeling a bit flat’ has become ‘clinically depressed’?
“Sadness is a common, and necessary emotion,” says Dr Forrest. “Depression describes a situation where a low mood has become pervasive, either in its duration or severity. People who are depressed struggle to separate themselves from this ongoing sadness, which then starts to affect their ability to function as they did before.”
What about spotting depression symptoms in teenagers?
Dr Forrest says that teenagers often present depression symptoms or signs of other mental health challenges differently.
“Self-harm and eating disorders are both more common in this age group, and sometimes, mental health issues are wrongly diagnosed as poor behaviour, rebelliousness or ‘just a phase’,” he says.
Additionally, things at home may seem fine, but performance at school might deteriorate significantly and be picked up by teachers.
How to approach someone you’re concerned about
“Generally speaking, we know our loved ones very well so any prolonged or significant change in mood or behaviour would be cause for concern,” says Dr Forrest.
That said, approaching a family member or friend who you think may be depressed or struggling with another mental health issue is important, but must be done in an approachable, non-judgmental way.
“Be open and let them know that you are there for them. Tell them if you are worried. Don’t judge them or tell them to snap out of it!” advises Dr Forrest.
According to Dr Forrest, there are some different approaches for teenagers when it comes to discussing their mental health.
“The teenage years are a period of rapid change in behaviour, emotions and personality, so identifying what is normal adolescence and what is mental illness can be more challenging, especially for parents.”
Tips for talking to loved ones about their mental health
Good things to say to may include:
- “I’m here if you want to talk”
- “You’re not alone”
- “How did that make you feel?”
- “I’ve been through something similar”
- “If you’d like to see someone I’ll come with you”
- “There is a way to recover from this”
Things you should not say include:
- “Pull yourself together”
- “Go and get some help”
- “Cheer up”
- “You need to eat more”
“If you feel someone needs external support, suggesting you accompany them to your GP or counsellor can be a good starting point,” says Dr Forrest.
How can your GP help with mental health challenges?
As a doctor who has been caring for the international community in Singapore for the past five years, Dr Forrest is known of his down-to-earth approach, and sees both adults and teens with mental health concerns.
He says that, as a GP, when someone comes to see him about themselves or a loved one, there a number of things he can offer.
“Firstly, a confidential, non-judgemental and understanding ear. Not everyone has access to this from friends and family, especially when they are living overseas. For many people, just being able to talk to someone can help,” he says.
“Secondly, the benefit of my experience. It’s much easier to give someone perspective on their depression or anxiety symptoms when you’ve already seen a whole bunch of other people going through the same thing!”
And, most importantly, he can offer help.
“This can take many forms, from guiding people to help themselves through lifestyle or work adjustments and online resources, to referring them for psychological counselling or prescribing medication. We work with other excellent professionals and, as a GP in Singapore, my job is often to help people navigate their way around the system to find the best specialist to suit their needs.”
If you think you may be depressed or struggling with another mental health problem, contact your GP or find a doctor who you can to talk to.
Coming up: Mental Check-up virtual talk on 19 March
On Friday, 19 March (10 to 11am), Dr Neil Forrest and Dr Foong of Osler Health International will be giving a free virtual talk on mental health, and how to identify when to reach out for help. It’s only an hour, and could give you the insight you need for yourself or those around you. Register here!
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