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Mental Health: What Do We Look For?



Mental Health: What Do We Look For? How Do We Understand?

I am always curious what comes to mind for people when we utter the phrase mental health. Is it fear? Stigma? A wish to understand more? Complete denial that it exists? In the previous article, we discussed mental health being our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. But what does that look like in our day to day life? And how do we recognize symptoms of struggling health?

Depending on the issues we are struggling with, symptoms indicating the decline in our mental health can be pretty broad. I think we can all imagine that someone who recently lost a child, husband, or close loved one may be overwhelmed by grief. It’s fairly easy to understand why an individual who experienced and was injured in a horrific car crash might be fearful of getting behind the wheel again. If we have any form of empathy, where we can imagine what another person is feeling, we can relate to their current emotional experience. Empathizing with and recognizing someone struggling with their mental health requires us to take our understanding a step further.

This type of recognition exists as a bit more difficult, as we can picture a car crash. We can draw on our own experiences where we have slammed on the breaks, seen someone run a red light, or watched a news report on lane closures due to a grizzly interstate collision.As a general rule, we as humans rely on our own histories to understand, relate, and interpret interactions with others and our environments. Someone who was raised with a parent who struggled with a bipolar diagnosis may be fully aware of the behavioral variability that may accompany such a condition, while someone who has never received any information about mental health may struggle to identify how symptoms of depression or anxiety may affect the overall quality of an individual’s life. Even if we have a loose understanding of how a diagnosis could affect someone, mental health, like human beings, is dynamic. How one diagnosis effects a person might be different from how it effects another. A “diagnosis” cannot explain the whole sum of any one individual. Despite what labels are attributed to us, we are individual human beings first. Each of us are unique, our mental health is unique, and the presentation of symptoms is unique for each one of us.


Common symptoms of depression Also Symptoms of depression
Low mood for most days Feeling sad, empty, or hopeless Loss of interest in favorite activities


Weight loss

Not eating enough

Sleeping too much

Fatigue and loss of energy

Feelings of worthlessness

Drinking/ coping in harmful ways

Prolonged irritability Difficulty concentrating Drawing away from friends & supports


Weight gain


Not being able to sleep or insomnia


Excessive feelings of guilt

Feeling numb


Common symptoms of anxiety Also symptoms of anxiety
Feeling consistently anxious or on edge Excessive worry Increased heart beat/ breath/ sensations


Being easily fatigued

Difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep

Racing thoughts

Drinking/ coping in harmful ways

Feeling restless Difficulty concentrating Indecision


Muscle tension

Panic attacks

Repetitive thoughts/ behaviors

Stomach/ body pains [1]


The previous tables provide information and list symptoms of two common conditions of decreased mental health as an example of variations in symptoms. Sometimes we develop symptoms in response to our environments or high levels of stress, and sometimes they occur simply due to our chemical makeup and the biology of our brains. As we discussed, these lists are not exhaustive and each condition will affect an individual differently. For any condition, it is important to note how frequent the symptoms occur, how intense the symptoms affect the individual, and the duration (how long) of symptoms impact quality of life. Beginning to understand how these symptoms arise and what affect they have on individual lives exists as the beginning of regaining control over a positive quality of life. Again, because we are each unique, a search for mastery and control may look different in each person’s life.

Desiring control is another common human trait. We can do this by reacting to circumstances or developing a true understanding for our own individual wants and needs and discover how we relate to the world around us. It is in our nature to adapt to our surroundings. Our brains and bodies quite literally do this in order to survive. So whether we did not have the most ideal upbringing, experienced trauma, or we are genetically predisposed (more likely to have a certain outcome due to our genes and family history), there are still ways that we can seek to manage our emotions, health, and internal experiences.

One of the most significant protective factors (factors that protect us even when the odds of certain events/conditions act against us) that exist include the relationships with which we surround ourselves. In supportive relationships we find security, compassion, and understanding. These relationships can include friends, family, coworkers, or even health professionals committed to encouraging the development and growth of such factors. Additional protective factors include efforts towards positive physical health, adequate sleep, and nutrition. The ability to welcome differing perspectives and gain insight act as strong protective factors. Strong boundaries and the ability to set boundaries also support positive mental health outcomes, as well as the ability to develop self-care practices that encourage wellness.

Fostering positive mental health and getting curious about our own needs stands at the roots of wellness, but this process can take many forms. As a mental health professional, I will continually advocate for accessible, confidential, and affordable mental healthcare for all. I have listed several resources to promote this search below.

*My name is Kara Gately and I am a social worker working in a rural health clinic at Plumas District Hospital as a mental health professional providing psychotherapy and addiction treatment services. My passions include social justice, mental health, and promoting fair treatment and well-being for all. Please join the exploration and education in each publication as we explore topics related to mental health and health education.

[1]American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC.

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