Knowing When to Seek Professional Help

For people with ongoing mental health disorders, symptoms tend to change over time. You may find that most of the time your symptoms are under control, especially if you are following a treatment plan and/or are taking steps on your own to manage your mental health.

An important part of managing your health is learning to recognize the early signs of a mental health episode so that you can take steps to prevent symptoms from developing into larger problems. If you have an ongoing mental health disorder, we recommend scheduling regular check-ins with your mental healthcare provider. If you begin having symptoms between appointments, there are several questions you can ask yourself to help determine whether you should seek professional help.

Am I experiencing an unusual amount of distress?


Watch this video about Scott, who never thought he was depressed until a therapist pointed it out to him.

Everyone, regardless of whether or not they have been diagnosed with a mental health disorder, experiences distress from time to time. Distress is a term used to describe various negative feelings and experiences, including:

  • Sadness
  • Anger
  • Irritability
  • Fear
  • Anxiety
  • Helplessness
  • Confusion
  • Embarrassment

For most people, distress is an ordinary and brief reaction to a negative or stressful event. Although unpleasant, distress usually doesn’t lead to serious problems. But people with mental health disorders tend to experience distress more frequently and more intensely. Moreover, distress can signal the beginning of a mental health episode that could interfere with daily functioning. So it is important for people with mental health disorders to be aware of their experiences and know when to seek professional help. When does distress become something more serious that requires professional attention? There is no easy answer to this question, but below are some general characteristics that can be helpful in gauging the severity of distress.  

NOTE: This list is not intended to replace a professional evaluation.

Characteristics of Typical Distress and Distress Requiring Professional Attention

Typical distress

Distress requiring professional attention

  • Usually begins to subside after a few hours or days
  • Often does not subside for weeks, months, or even years
  • Usually has an identifiable cause, such as:
    • Having an argument with a friend or loved one
    • Performing poorly on a major test or assignment
    • Receiving disappointing news
    • Finding out a friend lied to you
  • Might not have a clearly identifiable cause:
    • Crying frequently without knowing why
    • Having angry outbursts at others for no apparent reason
    • Feeling anxious in situations that are usually considered non-threatening
  • Usually has a reasonable intensity given the circumstances:
    • Crying for a few days after a romantic breakup
    • Feeling butterflies in your stomach before a major exam or presentation
    • Not talking to a friend for a time after he/she betrays your trust
  • Is often out of proportion to the circumstances:
    • Feeling worthless or hopeless after performing poorly on an exam
    • Angry outbursts over small problems
    • Avoiding classes or social situations because they make you feel very anxious
  • Gets better, at least briefly, when something good happens
  • Might not get better even when something good happens


Consider talking to your care provider if:

  • Your distress leads to dangerous thoughts or behavior, such as considering suicide or physically harming your body. If you are having suicidal thoughts , click here now or call 734-936-5900. If you have an emergency medical situation, call 911.
  • Your distress lasts for a long time (weeks, months or years).
  • Your distress seems out of proportion to your problems.
  • You feel distressed frequently and you are not sure why.
  • You continue feeling bad even when good things happen.
  • You find that distress interferes with your ability to live life the way you want to live it.
  • You feel a need to use alcohol or drugs in order to feel better.

Am I having difficulty functioning?

Problems require professional help when they persistently interfere with important areas of your life. Ask yourself the following questions, and if you answer "yes" to any of them, consider talking to your mental health care provider:

  • Am I having difficulty carrying out or completing my normal activities and responsibilities?
  • Am I unable to do my class work, or has class work suffered, because of the way I have been feeling or acting?
  • Am I having difficulty interacting with friends, classmates or strangers?
  • Has my behavior damaged my relationships with friends or family members?
  • Have I been avoiding people or important situations frequently because I have been feeling anxious?
  • Has my drinking or drug use interfered with my relationships, my academic performance or my other responsibilities?

Are other people concerned about me?

Sometimes it’s difficult for us to recognize when we are having problems that may be obvious to friends or loved ones. If someone you trust expresses concern about your health or behavior, don’t dismiss it without taking time to consider their concerns objectively. Consider the other person’s perspective and find out why they are concerned.

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Has someone recently told me that I’ve been acting differently?
  • Has someone recently told me that I have been treating people differently?
  • Are other people worried about how I’ve been acting?
  • Are other people finding it difficult to interact with me?
  • Has someone expressed concern about my weight or my eating habits?
  • Has someone objected to or shown concern about how much I have been drinking or using drugs?


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