Imagine you are out to lunch with a friend, co-worker or parent. As you begin your meal, you notice something odd: she can’t seem to lift her fork. You make a little joke and she responds by smiling on just one side of her mouth. It occurs to you that these are the signs of a stroke. Calmly, you ask her to say something but she can’t put a sentence together. At this point, you know it’s time to call 9-1-1.

Now imagine another, similar scene. This friend, colleague or parent you have known for years has met you for lunch but is behaving oddly. He has just ordered a second drink yet you have never known him to drink at lunch. There is also a change in mood: instead of being excited about an invitation to play golf, he seems not to care. In fact, he doesn’t seem to be able to focus on the conversation.

You react by thinking, “What’s wrong with him? Why can’t he control himself?” You may be uncomfortable addressing the situation and simply leave feeling disappointed.

When a person shows unusual behavior, feelings or thoughts, it can be a sign of mental distress. Rather than judgment from friends and family, what that person needs is something akin to “mental health first aid.” They need someone to recognize there is a problem and offer assistance in getting the best help.

Because the general public lacks knowledge about basic mental health, it is common for signs of mental illness to go unrecognized for years. Both the person suffering and the people around him may not realize that the symptoms are real, potentially serious and treatable.

Unfortunately, the impact of our ignorance is not small.

When mental health disorders go unrecognized and untreated, there are serious implications to an individual’s physical health, quality of life and independence. Consider this: mental illness can take 25 years from someone’s life. That’s more than all cancers combined and possibly more damaging than smoking 20 cigarettes a day.

Early intervention can lessen the impact and even prevent the development of a serious disorder that could interfere with education, work and family life.

There is also a corresponding cost to society. The financial costs of mental illness rival that of cancer. Jails and juvenile detention centers are full of individuals who might not be there if their mental illnesses had been properly addressed at the onset.

Finally, social services must often intervene to provide assistance to people who can no longer keep a job or were never able to finish school.

Basically, our lack of understanding about mental health prevents both the identification and treatment of disorders– a concerning situation especially when we consider that the National Institute of Mental Health estimates that almost 44 million adults had a diagnosable mental disorder in 2012.

While many changes can be made to public policy, there are things each of us can do starting now to be more responsive to mental health issues. It starts by taking care of those around us. Family, friends, co-workers, teachers, school counselors and neighbors are often the first to notice when something is “not quite right” with someone.

Each of us can certainly learn to recognize the signs of a mental disorder in the same way we would recognize the signs of a heart attack or stroke.

Here are some key things to look for: recent social withdrawal or apathy, an unusual drop in functioning at work or school including quitting sports, failing or inability to concentrate, dramatic changes in appetite, sleep, hygiene or mood, a heightened sensitivity to sounds, sights, smells or touch, and problems with logical thought and speech.

Basically, uncharacteristic and peculiar behavior, feelings or thinking should raise a red flag.

If you become concerned about someone’s mental health, the creators of Mental Health First Aid, Betty Kitchener and Anthony Jorm, suggest following these five steps: assess for risk of suicide or harm; listen nonjudgmentally; give reassurance and information; encourage appropriate professional help; and encourage self-help and other support strategies.

If you suspect someone is actively suicidal, you can call the Niagara County Suicide Prevention Hotline at 285-3515.

For a list of all the emergency phone numbers in Niagara County, you can obtain a Help Book from the Niagara County Mental Health Association in Niagara County Inc. by calling 433-3780 or going online at www.mhanc.com.

Pamela Szalay is the director of marketing and operations at the Mental Health Association in Niagara County Inc., and has done numerous presentations on mental wellness in Niagara County. She can be reached at pszalay@mhanc.com.

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