Navigating mental healthcare can be a difficult and confusing process. In our semi-monthly column, we take your questions for a psychiatrist and ask the professionals on your behalf.
Please note that this article is for educational purposes only. The following does not constitute official medical advice, and no treatment relationship has been established. You should consult your own doctors to best understand the needs of your unique situation. If you or someone you know is in crisis, please visit the nearest emergency room or call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255), which is a 24/7 toll-free number. For non-crisis situations and non-U.S. resources, check out the resources on our Find Support page.
This month's question:
When should I seek professional help?
Dr. Wang says:
Presence of certain psychiatric symptoms always warrants a consultation. These include, but are not limited to, suicidal thoughts, hallucinations (i.e., hearing voices that others don’t hear), paranoia (feeling that others are out to get you), and severe anxiety that culminates in recurrent panic attacks. But short of these symptoms, how do you know if that sadness or anxiety you feel is a normal human emotion, or a pathological state that requires professional help?
To decide whether or not to seek professional help, I suggest that you consider how these feelings have affected your body, your performance at work or school, and your relationships. If any one of these areas is affected significantly for a consistent period of time (this is arbitrary, but > 2 weeks is an often used cutoff), then consider seeing a professional for further evaluation and treatment.
Let’s talk about these 3 areas in more detail:
Body: Have you been struggling with insomnia or hypersomnia? Have you noticed a change in your appetite or weight? Are you experiencing shortness of breath or chest pressure? These and other common symptoms--headaches, fatigue, stomach pain, palpitations, change in sex drive, etc.--often accompany depression and anxiety. It's not uncommon for emotional suffering to manifest itself as various physical symptoms. Also, people struggling with emotional distress are often more prone to infections due to compromised immunity. Patients who seek psychiatric help often do so when physical exams and diagnostic procedures show nothing unusual.
Work: Has your work or school performance consistently suffered? Are you failing to meet deadlines? Are you losing motivation and struggling to get started on projects that you previously would have been excited about? Are your grades falling?
Relationships: Are you isolating yourself from your friends and family? Are you losing interest in maintaining friendships or romantic relationships? Are your friends and family telling you that you have changed and seem worried about you?
If you find yourself nodding at some or most of the questions listed above, it is a sign that your emotional struggles have affected your functionality and warrant professional consultation.
Seeing a mental health professional for the first time may be an anxiety-provoking experience, but postponing needed treatment can lead to a longer course of illness and worse outcomes. In fact, I suggest the following litmus test: if you find yourself repeatedly wondering whether to consult a mental health professional, then you probably should.
ABOUT DR. WANG
Dr. Ying Wang is a psychiatrist in Pennsylvania, USA. She received her medical degree from Yale University School of Medicine and completed her residency at Harvard Medical School’s Massachusetts General Hospital/McLean Hospital adult psychiatry program.