Recognise a Cry for Help That Doesn’t Sound Like One

Recognise a Cry for Help That Doesn’t Sound Like One
Photo: Ken stocker, Shutterstock

Not everyone who needs help will ask for it, and not everyone who asks for help will do it in the same way. Sometimes, what we know as a “cry for help,” won’t exactly seem like it’s coming from a point of desperation. This is why it helps to know the ways in which someone in a vulnerable state might be pleading for someone to notice them — even if their words or body language don’t exactly exude a personal crisis.

What is a cry for help?

It’s more of a colloquialism than a term defined by medical journals, but in a traditional sense, a cry for help is an understated expression of the need for assistance in dealing with severe inner-turmoil.

Or, as the Medical Dictionary defines it:

A popular expression for verbalizations–eg telephone call to crisis intervention hotlines or actions — eg standing on outer ledge of tall building, notes left in conspicuous places, which indicate a state of extreme mental distress or anguish, and the potential for suicide.

We might associate the phrase as precursor to suicide, such as cutting or other non-life-threatening acts of self-harm. But as far as seeking out help goes, a cry for help doesn’t necessarily have to be that severe. It can manifest in more understated ways that could be easier to overlook.

What’s a cry for help that’s not easily recognised?

Understanding what “a cry for help” might look like is to recognise some of the hallmarks of depression. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) lists the following behaviours as indicators of emotional distress and potential harbingers of self-harming behaviour:

  • Eating or sleeping too much or too little
  • Pulling away from people and things
  • Having low or no energy
  • Having unexplained aches and pains, such as constant stomachaches or headaches
  • Feeling helpless or hopeless
  • Excessive smoking, drinking, or using drugs, including prescription medications
  • Worrying a lot of the time; feeling guilty but not sure why
  • Thinking of hurting or killing yourself or someone else
  • Having difficulty readjusting to home or work life

You’ll notice that a lot of these behaviours, whether it’s eating too much or using prescription medicines, don’t necessarily seem like a sign of distress. To be sure, many people who experience depression don’t voice their problems, for fear of ostracism or the stigma that comes with it — especially men. It’s important to understand the more understated symptoms that might not necessarily seem like a blatant plea, because they can definitely creep up on you when a loved one exhibits them.

What are some of the more blatant cries for help?

You’ll notice that what we might classify as a cry for help rarely includes the words, “I need help.” Still, some of the ways a person might express a need for help and compassion are more outward, as conveyed by the University of Wisconsin, Madison’s Health Services department:

  • Verbal or written references to suicide or death
  • Talking about being a burden to others
  • Feelings of hopelessness or helplessness
  • Suicidal and/or homicidal threats
  • Seeking out things that could be used in a suicide attempt, such as weapons and drugs

The list of behaviours isn’t standard issue, either; there can be many ways people express a degree of helplessness, so it’s important for other people in their lives to be present and engaged.

How to talk to someone who might be crying out for help

Empathy is always a great way to start. By expressing that you feel for someone’s predicament without blaming them, even if their behaviour has been self-destructive, you’re showing that you’ve ultimately answered their call. The Cleveland Clinic recommends putting yourself in the person’s shoes “in a non-judgmental way.” It’s good to “maintain eye contact when listening, and say things like, ‘That sounds hard. I’m sorry you are going through this,’ and ‘I’m always here for you.’”

Of course, recommending therapy is always an option if this person hasn’t considered it yet. Knowing what you can’t fix is also an important lesson, but it’s crucial to provide a support system for the issues you know you can help with.

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