Once again, mental health was thrust into the spotlight last week when a suicidal German pilot crashed a passenger jet into the French Alps. In the aftermath, horrified colleagues wondered at the pilot’s ability to conceal his emotional turmoil. But his close friends reported that he had been withdrawn over the past several months, raising the question, “Could this have been prevented?”

It’s one that seems to be asked with increasing frequency in the wake of Newtown and similar acts of violence carried out by mentally troubled individuals. Could things have gone differently if we could be more open and honest about mental health? What if mental health were regarded with the same compassion and vigilance as physical health?

Addressing such questions is the goal of the Campaign to Change Direction, a new nationwide initiative backed by first lady Michelle Obama that aims to change the dialogue about mental health. One of its major goals is raising public awareness of the signs of mental illness, with the hope that emotional suffering can be treated and tragedies averted.

These are the five red flags that a person may be in distress:

Personality changes: These can be sudden or gradual. The person may seem different; they may say or do things that are seem odd, or inconsistent with their usual values.

Agitation: You may notice that a person seems uncharacteristically agitated, irritable, anxious or moody. Because they are quick to anger and have trouble calming down, you may feel like you are walking on eggshells. 

Isolation and withdrawal: Someone who used to be socially engaged may pull away from family and friends, and stop participating in activities he or she used to enjoy. In more severe cases, the person may start failing to make it to work, school or appointments, even with a therapist.

Poor self-care: Aside from neglecting their hygiene, the person may engage in risky behavior, such as abusing alcohol or taking drugs.

Hopelessness: A person who used to be optimistic can’t find anything to be hopeful about. He or she may be plagued by feelings of guilt and worthlessness, and convinced that their situation will never improve. This may be a sign that he or she is contemplating suicide.

If you notice one or more of these signs in a relative, friend or colleague, approach them with compassion and concern. Show your willingness to help, even if the individual may not have the will or drive to heal. It may take more than one offer, and you may need to marshal the support of others, but you might just save a life.

Email your questions to Kim Schneiderman, MSW, LCSW, at askkim@metro.us. Her book, “Step Out of Your Story: Writing Exercises to Reframe and Transform Your Life,” is due to be published in spring 2015.