Spot the warning signs: How to tell if your loved one is suffering from a mental illness

Jan 15, 2020
There are many signs you can look out for that your loved one is suffering from a mental health illness. Source: Getty

Older adults living at home are surrounded by the familiar, which can assist with maintaining both functional independence and mental wellbeing.

However, and particularly when acute or chronic illnesses are present, mental health issues can arise. These may be difficult to distinguish from aspects of the illness, or may also arise from other sources. While many conditions associated with old age may not be responsive to treatment, such as dementia, mental health issues are responsive to treatment, even among the elderly.

However, mental wellbeing is often overlooked in older adults. Let’s look at some of the ways mental wellbeing can be affected for those in home care.

Influence of medical conditions

Both acute conditions such as a sprained ankle or chronic illnesses including cardiac or respiratory conditions requiring medication, can take their toll on mental health in different ways. Temporary lack of mobility can lead to increased frustration and unless rehabilitation is encouraged, can lead to loss of independence and increased risk of both anxiety and depression.

Chronic illnesses can also cause loss of functionality, and medication changes or additions can result in side effects. These side effects may be reflected in changed mental sharpness or a change in mood.

Being alert to either acute or chronic medical conditions and their impact on wellbeing can prevent signs of anxiety or sadness becoming more entrenched. In some cases, a visit to a counsellor or psychologist may be required, to assist with the condition. A general practitioner can provide a referral for both.

Symptoms of anxiety and depression

Anxiety and depression share many symptoms: wandering attention, changes in sleep patterns, and reluctance to engage socially. Depression also can be associated with changes in appetite – either an increase or decrease, while anxiety can be associated with increased heart rate and breathlessness.

But many medical conditions and medications may also mimic these physical, mental and emotional symptoms. The older person themselves may not be sure whether their changed mood or thinking is the result of a physical condition, a medication side effect, or the early warning signs of a mental health issue.

How to help 

If you’re concerned about an older friend or family member’s mental wellbeing, there are some signs to indicate how they’re coping, and whether more help may be required.

First, you should ask yourself if the change in mental wellbeing is linked with another event. A change in medication, the loss of a beloved pet or receiving news of a medical condition may all prompt sadness or anxiety, irrespective of age. Being supportive and keeping the GP in the loop particularly about effects of medication changes, may help alleviate the symptoms.

Next you should consider if the change is incremental and steady over time, or reminiscent of earlier episodes of mental ill-health.  This scenario suggests the need for more formal evaluation and assistance by a mental health professional. However, support of both everyday tasks, such as helping around the house, and offering interpersonal support, by taking time for a cuppa or just being with the person, can also assist with improving mental wellbeing.

Resources in the community

The GP is a good place to start, especially with a referral for mental health counselling or therapy. The GP may also refer to an occupational or physical therapist if physical reconditioning is required, which can then lead to improved mental outlook.

Perhaps the assistance of a community service, such as Meals on Wheels, can provide temporary or ongoing support in the home. Meanwhile, church groups, neighbours and friends can assist with reconnecting socially.

Organisations such as Beyond Blue and the Black Dog Institute offer helpful services and information regarding mental wellbeing in later life. There is also a National Mental Health Consumer and Carer Forum, which functions under the auspices of Mental Health Australia and helps inform national policy in Australia.

Finally, mental wellbeing is not something that all people can talk about openly. Being sensitive and respectful of boundaries and really listening, are key when mental health is an issue.

Tricking or forcing a person into seeking help for mental health issues is never advisable. A better way to go about things is to ask the person what strategies they have found useful in the past, and building on their own strengths and resources.

Important information: The information provided on this website is of a general nature and information purposes only. It does not take into account your personal health requirements or existing medical conditions. It is not personalised health advice and must not be relied upon as such. Before making any decisions about your health or changes to medication, diet and exercise routines you should determine whether the information is appropriate in terms of your particular circumstances and seek advice from a medical professional.

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Have any of your loved ones ever battled with a mental illness while receiving home care?

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