Are you headed for a mental breakdown?

When Charlie Sheen jumped off the mental health bandwagon in March amid a high-profile media circus, there was a lot of talk about his mental state.

“Charlie Sheen is not funny, he is sick,” said the Los Angeles Times wrote.

Fox News attributed his antics to the “‘high’ phase of bipolar disorder.”

In a one-hour special titled Charlie Sheen: Win?… or lose? TV’s Dr. Drew Pinsky confirmed that he believed Sheen should be institutionalized immediately for his “acute psychiatric emergency”.


But what if you can report what Sheen is going through? Was there? Maybe not the part of the goddesses and tiger blood, but the sheer nervous tension and sanity edge of it all. You’re not alone. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 26% of American adults currently suffer from mental disorders, and 18% of us suffer from anxiety disorders. Are we on the verge of a national nervous breakdown?

Many mental health professionals have described it as potential psychosis, a broad term that describes a person who no longer behaves in accordance with reality. This is where the term mental breakdown applies, explains Robert Epstein, Ph.D., a psychology researcher and former editor of psychology today. “If someone has become psychotic, they have more or less broken away from reality.”

But while Sheen’s drug abuse, hotel trashing and ranting behavior have been highly publicized, for the Jane and Joe Q. Privates of the world, the signs they’re headed for mental distress may be easy to miss. “Charlie Sheen is an outsourcer,” says Jennifer Freed, Ph.D., a psychology professor and therapist based in Santa Barbara, Calif. “His rage, his destabilization and his mania are all visible. But the vast majority of people are silent And as they break down, it is as if they are becoming more and more invisible.


In the workplace, when we see someone’s mental health deteriorating, it rarely means they’re going to become psychotic, Epstein points out. Instead, most cases of mental distress at work are the consequence of an overload or accumulation of stressors that can take various 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 up over time and have very serious consequences.”

“There’s no one way people react to stress,” says Dave Jennings, Ph.D., a consultant who works with large corporations during transitions or times of organizational change, times where stress can become evident at work. “As a result, it’s often difficult to determine when a person’s behavior is truly a warning sign.”

The problem, then, is recognizing troubling behavior in yourself and those around you to better help you deal with aggravating stressors before you fall into the black hole of mental breakdown. Lack of sleep, increased irritability, change in eating habits, or poor focus on the task at hand can be indicators that something is wrong. But it’s often easy to miss the connection between these issues and your emotional or mental health.


That’s not to say that people won’t be aware that they’re isolating themselves – you’ll surely realize this if you refuse every social event that comes your way. “People notice what’s happening to themselves,” Epstein says. “They know they’re not sleeping. But the problem is that they don’t know what that means. People often have no idea what this means or that their behavior could be a sign of something easily treatable and the result is that they don’t seek help.

Depending on the progression of symptoms, Epstein warns of a snowball effect when a troubled person notices changes in themselves and becomes worried about it. “It adds stress to stress,” he says. “The stress of change and being aware of these changes without understanding the meaning can be aggravated.” As stress feeds on itself and a person becomes more and more socially isolated, they are even less likely to seek help.

“As people become increasingly stressed, they tend to withdraw into themselves,” says Epstein, who warns that social isolation can be one of the strongest predictors of someone heading into a emotional crisis. It’s a double-edged sword, he says, because as the troubled person withdraws, their behavior towards the people in their life can also make them less lovable. How many times can you refuse your coworkers’ invitation to lunch before they stop asking you?

Only so much.

Beyond skipping social occasions, there are other signals you can give in the workplace that should alert your co-workers — and yourself — that all is not well. Your once clean desk is now filled with old newspapers, yesterday’s coffee cups and useless paperwork? “The disorganized mind often manifests itself in disorganized environment,” Freed says. Take note of your desk and what it might tell you about your mental stability.

The first step when you notice that your behavior is off or your stress levels are rising is to ask for help, doctors and mental health professionals unanimously agree, whether it is a professional, a family member or a friend. Epstein also suggests taking advantage of online resources, like, a site he developed with a series of questions that can help you better understand your mental state. “It doesn’t diagnose you, but it does indicate whether or not you should probably see a therapist or a counselor and what you should tell them. It gives you a language to use.

But Freed insists that the second step, and perhaps the most important, is take personal time to work on the individual elements that cause stress in your life. Whether it’s taking time off from work or simply taking a step back to look at your situation from a different perspective, time is essential for 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 allow themselves to take time for themselves. Think Charlie Sheen,” she warns. “He never came out of the rat race. And look where rolled up.


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