Mental Health First Aid for Depression and Anxiety

By Stephanie Camins – MA, LPC 

verified by Psychology Today

Mental Health First Aid for depression and anxiety is a program that helps you recognize potential risk factors and warning signs for a range of common mental health issues.  “By building an understanding of mental health we reduce the stigma of mental illness. One in five Americans has a mental illness or substance use disorder, yet many are reluctant to seek help or simply don’t know where to turn for care.

Recognizing mental health and substance use challenges can be difficult, which is why it’s so important for everyone to understand the warning signs and risk factors. Even when friends and family of someone who may be developing a mental illness recognize that something is amiss, they may not know how to intervene or direct the person to proper treatment. All too often, those in need of mental health services do not get them until it is too late.”

When you understand common symptoms, risk factors, and warning signs you are better able to identify and respond in a helpful way to friends and family members who are struggling with mental illness and may not even know it themselves.  Learning how you can support someone who is struggling can be confusing.  With knowledge you will be more comfortable helping, supporting and giving resources.


Anxiety is a normal emotion and the brain’s way of reacting to stress and alerting you to any potential danger.  Some anxiety can be good, motivating us to act and even improving performance.  However, it can also be crippling when excessive.  Anxiety can be experienced anywhere from mild symptoms to panic attacks. An anxiety disorder is different than stress which is an expected part of life’s ups and downs.  It is characterized by feelings of worry, anxiety, or fear that are strong enough to interfere with your daily activities at school, work or in social situations.

Anxiety is the most common mental illness in the United States.  18% or 40 million adults have an anxiety disorder.  There are several types of anxiety including, generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, PTSD, OCD, phobias, social anxiety, and agoraphobia.  Anxiety can manifest in many different ways including physical and mental symptoms.  An anxiety disorder is based on the length of time you have experienced symptoms and the severity of the symptoms.

  • Anxiety Symptoms – Fact Sheet:

    • Rapid or irregular heartbeat
    • Muscle tightness
    • Restlessness
    • Feeling on edge
    • Dry mouth
    • Chest pain
    • Sweating
    • Shortness of breath
    • Stomach aches or nausea
    • Headaches
    • Feeling out of control
    • Feelings of panic, fear or nervousness
    • Difficulty controlling feelings of worry
    • Irritability
    • A feeling of impending doom
    • Difficulty concentrating
    • Believing the worst will happen
    • Problems falling or staying asleep
    • Thinking about a problem over and over again and unable to stop (rumination)
    • Intensely or obsessively avoiding feared objects or place
  • Causes and risk factors:

      • Genetics
      • Environmental stress
      • Drug use or withdrawal
      • Some medical conditions
      • Having a history of other mental health disorders
      • Childhood abuse
      • Trauma
      • Negative life events
      • Sever or chronic illness
      • Low self-esteem
  • What can help relieve anxiety:

    • Learn about anxiety disorders
    • Keep a journal
    • Manage your negative thoughts
    • Get together with friends
    • Regular exercise
    • Mindfulness exercises
    • Deep breathing
    • Progressive muscle relaxation
    • Getting good sleep
    • Limiting alcohol and caffeine
    • Set personal boundaries – it’s ok to say no!
    • Seek support
    • See a professional
  • Helping a loved one with anxiety:

Understand and recognize the above signs of excessive worry.  Often you may notice the heightened level of anxiety before your loved one.  What do you do if you are concerned?Happy couple

  • Listen and reassure
  • Don’t say “don’t worry about…”
  • Avoid judging or blaming
  • Remember we all experience anxiety differently, what has helped you may not help them
  • Help them navigate their own journey
  • Get them out for exercise or activities.
  •  Resources:

    • Anxiety and Depression Association of America
    • National Alliance of Mental Illness
    • National Institute of Mental health


Depression is a mental health disorder characterized by persistently depressed mood or loss of interest in activities, causing significant impairment in daily life.  Possible causes include a combination of biological, psychological, and social sources of distress.  Increasingly, research suggests these factors may cause changes in brain function, including altered activity of certain neural circuits in the brain.

  • Symptoms – Fact Sheet:

    • Persistent sad, anxious or “empty mood
    • Feelings of hopelessness, or pessimism
    • Irritability
    • Angry outbursts
    • Slowed thinking or body movements
    • Feelings of worthlessness or guilt
    • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness or helplessness
    • Loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies and activities
    • Decreased energy or fatigue
    • Moving or talking more slowly
    • Feeling restless or having trouble sitting still
    • Difficulty concentrating, remembering or making decisions
    • Difficulty sleeping, early-morning awakening or oversleeping
    • Appetite and or weight changes
    • Thoughts of death or suicide or suicide attempts
    • Aches or pains, headaches, cramps or digestive problems without a clear physical cause and/or that do not ease even with treatment
    • Frequent or recurrent mention of death, suicidal thought
  • Risk Factors – Fact Sheet

      • Personal or family history of depression
      • Major life changes, trauma or stress
      • Financial troubles
      • Certain physical illnesses, injuries, and medications
      • Caring for a loved one with a major illness or disability
      • Using illegal drugs or alcohol
      • Combination of genetics, and environment
      • Dysfunction in the brains neurotransmitter system (mood-regulating chemicals may be ineffective or scarce)
  • What Can You Do/Coping Skills

    • Be active and exercise
    • Be realistic with goals
    • Spend time with others, try not to isolate
    • Volunteer
    • Eliminate negative thinking
    • Reengage in a hobby or interest you’ve let go
    • Focus on self-care such as showering, cleaning, buying groceries, cooking
    • Ask for help
    • See a professional counselor
  • Helping a Loved One

It’s hard not to feel helpless when a loved one is experiencing depression but there are things you can do to help!  Remember we all experience depression differently.  Learn how depression affects YOUR loved one.

  • Listen with Empathy
  • Learn about the symptoms
  • Be positive
  • Have an encouraging attitude
  • Provide distractions or get them out for activities or exercise
  • Check-in with them regularly
  • Give positive reinforcement
  • Help create a low-stress environment
  • Make plans together
  • Suggest the help of a professional
  • Express your willingness to help
  • Take all signs of suicidal behavior seriously and get help

Online Resources – ADAA Online Support Group

Self-Paced Program: This Way Up

Video Program: Undoing Depression

See my reading recommendations


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