Good question!  For some, it is easy to recognize that help is needed.  For example, if someone were so overwhelmed by sadness that they cannot get out of bed for weeks and have suicidal thoughts, most would agree that they are in need of help.  Many others, though, could still benefit from professional help even when their situation is not so extreme.  So how can you tell if someone in this grey area could benefit from professional help?
As a simple guide, think if the following attribute is characteristic of you (or a friend of yours) to at least some extent:
A. Your behavior, thoughts, or emotions have been preventing you from achieving your academic and personal goals, and from being happy.

  • Do you find concentrating long enough to complete all of your reading assignments consistently difficult?
  • Do you find that you often tell yourself that you are not worth it or that people do not like you?
  • Do you often become antagonistic with your bosses in a manner that makes it difficult to become promoted, succeed, or stay with your job?
  • Do you struggle with making challenging life decisions?

B. Your dysfunctional thoughts, emotions, and behaviors occur often and/or repeatedly.

  • Do you consistently become enraged and break up with your boy/girlfriend when the smallest friction develops?
  • Do you consistently date people with whom you often fight with or who treat you poorly?
  • Do you consistently fail to stick to a plan that would enable you to achieve your academic goals?

C. You feel stressed, anxious or distressed in being this way.

  • Do you often find yourself sitting at home at night doing nothing while you’re wishing that you had gone out with your friends?
  • Do you feel overwhelmed, out of control, and/or confused about a situation you are involved in? ​
  • Do you wish that you could change the way you consistently think or behave, but can’t seem to change by yourself?

D. Your behaviors, thoughts or emotions have changed dramatically or suddenly.
Have you, or someone you know, shown…

  • …A sudden social withdrawal and loss of interest in others or desire to participate in activities?
  • …An unusual drop in functioning, especially at school or work, such as quitting sports, failing in school, or difficulty performing familiar tasks?
  • …Uncharacteristic or peculiar behaviors?
  • …A dramatic sleep and appetite change or deterioration in personal hygiene?
  • …Rapid or dramatic shifts in feelings or mood swings that are inconsistent with previously stable moods?


Keep in mind: None of these characteristics (of a person’s thoughts, emotions or behaviors) necessarily indicates the presence of a diagnosable disorder or the need for a therapist.  

Benefitting from seeing a professional counselor or therapist, though, does not require having a disorder.  For some, these thoughts, emotions and behaviors could simply indicate that the person is in a trying and confusing time in their life, and a therapist could help greatly by simply giving the person a different perspective.  
Also, although distressing, your emotions and thoughts may be appropriate for the situation, and therapy may not be needed.  For instance, if you find yourself having high anxiety or even panic attacks as graduation approaches, this may be very typical.  Transitioning from college to a career is difficult and most feel some anxiety or panic.  In this case, a good career counselor might be more appropriate than a psychologist (or for some, both may be needed).


Common fallacies that stop people from seeking help:

Do you think you have yourself diagnosed or “all figured out”, and don’t need professional help? 

Think Again!!  We all have a bias in how we see ourselves – this mean that we often are blind to our own failings and dysfunctions.  We all want to be in control, self-reliant, “not that bad off”, and doing well.  In cases where these are simply not true, a professional is trained to recognize when we are blinding ourselves and help us gain insight that may be impossible alone.  The missing insight may be the key to help you overcome your situation and get back on the right track.

Do you think your friend is a “great listener” and is all the help that you need? 

Think Again!!  Friends that are great listeners are truly valuable.  Keep them close!  Friends are great for helping you feel better during a specific crisis moment.  Friends, however, may not be very good at identifying the underlying causes of dysfunctional behaviors, thoughts or emotions, and helping you find a path toward obtaining functional thoughts, emotions and behaviors.  This is what professionals have been trained to do.  Both friends and professionals are valuable, but they play different roles.  Just as a good friend cannot take the place of a good professional, a good professional cannot take the place of a good friend.

Do you think “self-medicating” with a couple of beers at the end of the day is all you need? 

Think Again!!  While it is true that many legal (e.g. Alcohol), pharmaceutical (e.g. Prozac) and illegal (e.g. Heroin) drugs can temporarily make people feel better, there are many reasons not to self-medicate:
1. Most of these drugs are also toxic and can cause organ damage if used outside the recommended dosage and without a doctor’s supervision.  This is especially true if you are “borrowing” pharmaceutical drugs from a friend or family member.
2. While some drugs are very effective as treatments, the treatment is only as good as the diagnosis.  In other words, applying the wrong treatment to a condition can actually make the condition much worse.  There are many disorders that appear very similar, but the drugs used to treat one can have disastrous effects on the other.  Even though someone else’s situation seems “just like you”, do not use their medicine without professional help!!
3. Many of these drugs are also addictive (yes, even pot!).  This may be especially problematic if you do actually have an underlying disorder, since people with the most difficult time with addiction also are more likely to have an underlying disorder.  
4. In many cases, the drug only alleviates the undesirable symptoms and does not help the person overcome or change the dysfunctional thoughts, emotions or behaviors.  While this may help control the symptoms, the person will not actually get better.