May is Mental Health Awareness month, a time of year when we focus on recognizing mental health concerns and the potential associated stigma.

More than ever, being aware of potential mental health concerns for your family and yourself is exceptionally important. The pandemic has led to a sharp increase in a number of mental health conditions, even in people who had never experienced them before.

The World Health Organization (WHO) noted that in just the first year of the pandemic, there was a 25% increase in cases of anxiety and depression around the world. Much of that stemmed from the increased stress people experienced when they were isolated from their family and friends, coworkers, and schoolmates. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported that while the initial levels of mental health issues improved, they remained much higher than normal as the pandemic continued.

More recently, a study by the Washington University School of Medicine found that COVID-19 survivors are at higher risk of developing anxiety or stress disorders than people who haven’t come down with the virus.

The COVID pandemic isn’t the only factor that can lead to depression or anxiety. Chronic problems at work, a serious illness in the family, a loss of a loved one, or many other traumas that upend our lives can have a powerful effect on our wellbeing.

“We all can be a little anxious or depressed from time to time, but when those feelings persist or get worse, it’s important to seek help,” said Dr. Richard Briones, Chief Medical Officer of Good Samaritan Hospital. “The sooner you do, or the sooner you help encourage a loved one to talk to their doctor, the sooner you can be on the road to a treatment plan that can help.”

Beyond depression and anxiety, there are more serious conditions that can affect people’s mental health, and can require more immediate care. That’s one reason Good Samaritan Hospital’s Emergency Department offers telemedicine for psychiatric care, bringing a therapist to the bedside virtually when a patient needs that care.

What can you do to help yourself or a loved one? One of the keys is knowing what to look for. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) recommends being on the lookout for symptoms that might indicate concern:

  • Excessive worrying or fear
  • Feeling excessively sad or low
  • Confused thinking or problems concentrating and learning
  • Extreme mood changes, including uncontrollable “highs” or feelings of euphoria
  • Prolonged or strong feelings of irritability or anger
  • Avoiding friends and social activities
  • Difficulties understanding or relating to other people
  • Changes in sleeping habits or feeling tired and low energy
  • Changes in eating habits such as increased hunger or lack of appetite
  • Changes in sex drive
  • Difficulty perceiving reality (delusions or hallucinations, in which a person experiences and senses things that don't exist in objective reality)
  • Inability to perceive changes in one’s own feelings, behavior or personality (lack of “insight” or anosognosia)
  • Overuse of substances like alcohol or drugs
  • Multiple physical ailments without obvious causes (such as headaches, stomach aches, vague and ongoing “aches and pains”)
  • Thinking about suicide
  • Inability to carry out daily activities or handle daily problems and stress
  • An intense fear of weight gain or concern with appearance

“Mental Health Awareness month is a great reminder that we need to take care of our whole selves, and each other.” Dr. Briones said.