Mental Illness Awareness – What can YOU do?

This year, Mental Illness Awareness Week takes place from October 6 – 12. Thursday, October 10 is World Mental Health Day and National Depression Screening Day.

You may wonder, “What has that got to do with me”? One of the most commonly believed and damaging myths is that mental illness is not an actual disease. Sadly, as with many physical diseases, the causes are often unidentified, thus resulting in social insensitivity and consequent stigmatization. Much of the adverse effects of persons who struggle with mental illness are associated with the way they are perceived by society. For example, it is very common for friends or family members of someone battling depression to make insensitive statements like “Can’t you just snap out of it?”

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) reports that as much as 1 in 25 (10 million) adults in America live with a serious mental illness, dying up to 25 years earlier than others, mainly due to treatable medical conditions. In any given year, 2 million adults have co-occurring mental health and substance use disorders, with suicide being the second leading cause of death in youth ages 10-24 (90% who die by suicide having a mental health condition).  Among American adults: 1 in 100 (2.4 million) live with schizophrenia; 6% (6.1 million) live with bipolar disorder; 9% (16 million) live with major depression, and; 1% (42 million) live with anxiety disorders. Mood disorders, which include major depression, dysthymic disorder and bipolar disorder, are the third most common cause of hospitalization in the U.S. for both youth and adults aged 18-44.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recorded the U.S. suicide rate as having increased on average by about 1% a year from 2000 through 2006 and by 2% a year from 2006 through 2016. In 2017, drug overdoses claimed 70,000 lives, and 17.3 million, or 7%, of U.S. adults reported suffering at least one major depressive episode in the past year. Startlingly, life expectancy has fallen for three straight years, in part because of the rise in drug overdoses and suicides.

In the U.S., each year, an estimated 19 million are diagnosed with clinical depression. Depression, though commonly thought to be just being “extremely sad”, has many other debilitating symptoms including chronic fatigue, insomnia, difficulty concentrating, and persistent feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness. Without having a proper understanding and appreciation of the illness, those who suffer and those who care for them can experience high levels of frustration.

Defining the Stigma

Corrigan and Penn (1999) define public stigma as a set of negative attitudes and beliefs that motivate individuals to fear, reject, avoid, and discriminate against people with mental illness. An article published by the U.S. National Library of Medicine – National Center for Biotechnology Information described stigmatizing beliefs about the danger of people with mental illness as having increased over time. The article stated that beliefs of shame, blame, incompetency, punishment, and criminality of people with mental illness are common.

Stigma is a major barrier preventing people from seeking help for their mental health issues. People with serious mental illness grapple with the symptoms and disability of their disease as well as the labels and prejudice that often results from misconceptions about mental illness. According to NAMI, among adults with a serious mental illness, only 62.9% received mental health services in the past year. Quite often, people do not realize that their symptoms are due to an undiagnosed mental health condition, or they may feel ashamed to seek help because of the stigma associated with mental illness. The reality is that many people living with mental health conditions are productive, reliable members of society who live full and satisfying lives. Unfortunately, often even in the most loving and accepting families, communities and organizations, many individuals keep their struggles to themselves.

You can help eradicate the stigma attached to mental illness. Here are some suggestions:

Share your story – Don’t be surprised if the person who sits beside you at church or the leader of an organization you are a part of, is someone who you not just admire, but is living with mental illness. If you are someone who is living with mental illness and have benefited from getting the help you need, share your story! You may never know the difference your openness and transparency could make to someone else!

Learn as much as you can – Take every opportunity to educate yourself and others about the reality of living with mental illness. Persons who have not experienced a similar struggle often have a difficult time understanding what the experience is like. Gaining knowledge about mental illness can increase acceptance and empathy for the loved ones of those who witness their struggles, and their triumphs.

Watch your words –Remind people that their words matter. So much of our chatter is mindless, and we often use words that can hurt others. If we are hurt by words that ridicule mental health conditions such as “psycho”, “demented” or “crazy”, speak up and remind people that persons who exhibit those behaviors are often struggling with a treatable mental health condition.

Advocate – Do some research on organizations that educate the public about mental health issues and become an advocate. Spread the word about any treatment opportunities or programs that you are aware of. Take the time to listen to the stories of persons who have successfully overcome their mental health challenges. Support them, spread their messages and present yourself as a non-judgmental “friend” of those who live with mental illness.

It is important to keep in mind that mental health conditions are not only common, they are also treatable. Several mental health treatment options are currently available to those who need them, ranging from talk therapy to prescribed medication. It may take some time and effort to find the ideal treatment or combination of treatments that’s a good fit for them, however, when they do, the results can be life changing!

– Dr. Karen McGibbon is a LPC, an Assistant Professor in Clinical Counseling and  the Practicum & Internship Coordinator at Winebrenner Seminary

Image from Pixabay, accessed by Adobe Spark.