Mental Health Checklist - Knowing when it is time to get help


This week is Mental Health Week.  A time for awareness and to think about your mental health. Do you have questions or concerns? Do you wonder if you need help?

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.

Am I experiencing an unusual amount of distress?

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:

  • Usually begins to subside after a few hours or days

  • 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

  • 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


Characteristics of Distress Requiring Professional Attention:


  • Often does not subside for weeks, months, or even years

  • 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

  • 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

  • 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 call Ottawa Distress Centre 613-238-3311 or the Mental Health Crisis Line 613-722-6914.

  • If you have an emergency medical situation, call 911.

  • Feelings of distress last for a long time (weeks, months or years).

  • Feelings of distress seem out of proportion to the problem.

  • Feeling distressed frequently and not sure why.

  • Continuing feeling bad even when good things happen.

  • Distress interferes with your ability to live life the way you want to live it.

  • Using alcohol or drugs in order to feel better.

  • 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 a mental health care provider:
•    Am I having difficulty carrying out or completing my normal activities and responsibilities?
•    Am I unable to do my work, or has my work suffered, because of the way I have been feeling or acting?
•    Am I having difficulty interacting with friends, family or strangers?
•    Has my behaviour 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 work 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 behaviour, don’t dismiss it without taking time to consider their concerns objectively. 


"Mental health is about more than mental illness. It’s more than being happy all the time. It’s about feeling good about who you are, having balance in your life, and managing life’s highs and lows. Everyone deserves to feel well, whatever their mental health experience. And we all need a support system to lean on."  -CMHA