But what if you can relate to what Sheen is going through? Been there? Maybe not the goddesses and tiger blood part, but the sheer nervous tension and on-the-verge-of-sanity of it all. You’re not alone. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 26% of American adults are currently suffering from mental health disorders—18% of us from conditions that are rooted in anxiety. Are we on the verge of a nation-wide mental breakdown?
Many mental health professionals have described it as potential psychosis, a broad term that describes a person who is no longer behaving in accordance with reality. That’s where the term mental breakdown applies, says Robert Epstein, Ph.D., a research psychologist and former editor-in-chief of Psychology Today. “If someone has become psychotic, they’ve more or less had a break from reality.”
But while Sheen’s drug abusing, hotel trashing and ranting behavior were highly publicized, for the Jane and Joe Q. Privates of the world the signs they’re headed for mental distress can be easy to miss. “Charlie Sheen is an externalizer,” says Jennifer Freed, Ph.D., a professor of psychology and therapist based in Santa Barbara, Calif. “His rage, destabilization and mania are all on display. But the vast majority of people are silent sufferers. And as they break down it’s as if they’re becoming more and more invisible.”
In the workplace when we see that someone’s mental health is deteriorating, that rarely means they’re going to become psychotic, Epstein points out. Instead, most cases of mental distress at work are a consequence of overload, or an accumulation of stressors that can take a variety of forms. “Maybe they have too much work to do, they’re behind on a project, their boss is abusive, they can’t pay their bills,” he says. “In the workplace stress can build over time and have very dire consequences.”
“There’s no one way that people respond to stress,” says Dave Jennings, Ph.D., a consultant who works with large corporations during transitions or periods of organization change—times when stress can become evident at work. “As a result, it’s often hard to pinpoint when a person’s behavior is really a warning sign.”
The problem, then, is recognizing troubling behavior in yourself and in the people around you to better help yourself deal with compounding stressors before you fall into the black hole of a mental break. Lack of sleep, increased irritability, a change in eating habits or poor focus on task at hand can be indicators that something is amiss. But it’s often easy to miss the link between these problems and your emotional or mental health.
This is not to say that people won’t be aware that they are isolating themselves—surely you’d realize if you’re turning down every social event that comes your way. “People do notice what’s happening to themselves,” says Epstein. “They know that they’re not sleeping. But the problem is that they don’t know what it means. People often have no idea what it means or that their behavior might be a sign of something easily treatable and so the result is that they’re not reaching out for help.”
Depending on how far symptoms progress, Epstein warns of a snowball effect as a troubled person notices changes in his or her self–and becomes anxious about it. “That adds stress on top of stress,” he says. “The stress of changing and the awareness of those changes without understanding the meaning can be compounded.” As the stress feeds upon itself, and a person grows increasingly socially isolated, she or he is even less likely to seek help.
“As people become more and more stressed they tend to withdraw into themselves,” says Epstein, who warns that social isolation can be one of the best predictors that someone is headed towards an emotional crisis. It’s a double edged sword, he says, because at the same time that the troubled person is withdrawing, their behavior towards the people in their life can also make them less loveable. How many times can you turn down your coworkers’ invitation to lunch before they stop asking you?
Only so many.
Beyond skipping social occasions, there are other signals you may be giving off in the workplace that should warn colleagues—and yourself—that all is not well. Your once clean desktop is now piled with old newspapers, yesterday’s coffee cups and useless paperwork? “The disorganized mind often shows itself in disorganized surroundings,” Freed says. Take note of your office, and what it could be telling you about your mental stability.
The first step when you notice your behavior is off or your stress levels are rising is to ask for help, doctors and mental health professional uniformly agree, whether from a professional, family member or friend. Epstein also suggests taking advantage of online resources, like doyouneedtherapy.com, a site he’s developed with a series of questions that can help you better understand your mental state. “It doesn’t diagnose you, but it indicates whether or not you should probably consult a therapist or counselor and what you should tell them. It gives you language to use.”
But Freed insists that the second, and possibly the most important, step isto take some personal time to work through the individual items that are causing stress in your life. Whether this is time off from work or simply taking a step back to look at your situation from a different perspective, the time is key to healing before the pressure reaches a boiling point. “Usually this kind of mounting pressure that can lead to an explosion is on people who don’t give themselves permission to take time for themselves. Think of Charlie Sheen,” she cautions. “He never got out of the rat race. And look where he wound up.”