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Mental Illness Awareness Week: Let’s #CureStigma

It seems that nearly every day calls for a celebration, whether it’s Bring Your Dog To Work Day or National Coffee Day. While some of these events may seem arbitrary and flat out silly, there are others that are designed to send important messages to everyone across the country. One important instance is Mental Awareness Week promoted by the National Alliance on Mental Illness. 

Some form of mental illness, whether it’s severe depression or bipolar disorder, touches us and/or our loved ones at a scale many of us are unaware of. According to NAMI at least one in five Americans will be affected by a mental health condition sometime during their life. When so many of our friends and family members may be struggling behind closed doors, how can we help? Today we’re going to learn more about mental illness and how we can support those we love.


Why An Entire Week?

It’s NAMI’s mission to bring awareness to all of the ways in which mental illness can manifest, including:

  • Eating disorders – The range of emotions and behaviors involved in anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating classify these actions as a mental illness.
  • PTSD – Any sort of traumatic event, not just serving in the military, can trigger this illness. Termed post-traumatic stress disorder, it can severely impact one’s day to day life.
  • Anxiety disorders – Associating an overwhelming amount of fear or dread with certain life events, or even regular tasks like going to the grocery store, can manifest into an anxiety disorder.
  • Psychotic disorders – Often thought of as the typical type of mental illness, these disorders include schizophrenia, hallucinations, and delusions. 
  • Mood disorders – Our emotions are complex and when a person tends to stay in a very sad or depressive state, they could have a mood disorder. These conditions often include severe depression or bipolar disorder.

The above list illustrates some of the more common instances of mental illness, but there are many more that affect the people you see on a daily basis. If you were surprised to learn that certain conditions are considered to be a mental illness, that’s exactly why NAMI exists. Many Americans are not informed about all of the types of issues that can arise, often leading to social stigmas and the fear of getting help from others.


Mental Illness Stats

Remember our earlier fact that one in five people in America experiences mental illness at some point in their lives? While it’s startling enough that so many individuals are affected by these conditions, it doesn’t even begin to touch the rest of the iceberg. Keep in mind that temporary cases of depression are included in that 20% figure, but what about people who are more deeply affected?

NAMI carefully measures and tracks instances of mental illness in America and breaks down their findings into a variety of ways. For example, while almost 44 million people across the country may find themselves depressed from time to time, almost 10 million experience a significant mental illness that prevents them from engaging in routine activities. Whether it’s the inability to keep a job or a fear of going out in public, these issues are very real for those who are suffering.

It’s not just adults who are touched by mental illness either, as NAMI also studies the issue among younger individuals. Those ages 13 to 18 have a 21.4% chance of experiencing a severe mental disorder at some point in their lifetime, and sadly the numbers only get worse. Suicide is the third most common cause of death for Americans between the ages of 10 and 24, with 90% of those who took their life having had an underlying mental illness. 

Mental health is such an important issue that it was recently discussed in a press release from the World Health Organization. They note that currently 450 million people across the globe suffer from a mental disorder, thus placing these types of conditions near the top of the list when discussing worldwide health and disability. Part of the issue, the organization notes, is that many countries do not have any type of mental health policies or programs to offer citizens in need.


Identifying Stigmas

Aside from a lack of resources in some parts of the world, there’s another major reason that mental illness is topping the charts when it comes to concerning health issues. Think for a moment the words that come to mind when someone says “mental illness.” Some of them may be accurate while others may perpetuate a social stigma of one not being “strong enough” to cope with their feelings. People may tend to treat those with a mental disorder differently, viewing them as unstable, unsafe, and even threatening.

Mental illness often falls into two different types of stigmas according to Psychology Today – social stigma and perceived or self-stigma. The former refers to the widespread view of others who have a mental disorder and sometimes leads to discrimination and prejudicial attitudes. This can be as minor as high schoolers not allowing certain peers to sit with them at lunch all the way to adults having a difficult time securing employment due to their condition.

While social stigma is a huge hurdle for anyone with mental illness to deal with, it’s often the perceived stigmas that perpetuate certain conditions. When individuals feel as if everyone is judging them or leaving them out due to their mental illness, it can lead to isolation and social withdrawal. Often times, these behaviors cause people to intentionally not seek treatment for fear of letting everyone know that they have an illness.

In fact, stigmas are such a prominent part of the overall topic of mental illness that this year’s theme of NAMI’s Mental Awareness Week is “CureStigma.” The group explains that stigma is toxic as it creates feelings of fear and shame in those who have a mental disorder and echos the idea that these emotions prevent people from getting help from others.


What Can You Do?

Changing social stigmas about mental illness is a tall task, but if we want to lower the incidents of mental disorders nationwide, it starts by having a supportive conversation with your friends and family. If you’ve recently discovered that a loved one has a mental illness or you are starting to notice unusual behavior, you can try some of these helpful tips from the American Psychological Association:

  • Casually mention your concerns and use facts to back them up. For example, you could say to your friend, “I’ve noticed you seem a bit different. You stopped showering and haven’t been eating much.”
  • Try encouraging your loved one to visit a healthcare provider. Often times mentioning the words psychiatrist or psychologist will spark perceived stigma concerns, so even suggesting an appointment with a primary care doctor can be a step in the right direction.
  • If they are highly resistant to scheduling an appointment, you may want to notify their physician of any alarming behavior. While privacy laws prohibit the dissemination of information, at least letting them know about someone’s condition can be helpful.
  • Instances of highly concerning behavior, including signs of intention to hurt themselves or someone else, should be reported immediately. Calling 911 may result in your friend receiving crisis intervention services.

Not only should we work to help others who may be struggling with mental illness, but it’s important to be aware of our own mental health. The concepts of self-care are often seen across the news these days, but in reality, this idea of taking time to nurture yourself mentally and physically is crucial.

Take some time to evaluate the things in your life that can trigger depression or anxiety, and analyze how you can deal with them instead of internalizing those emotions. Professionals suggest that owning your feelings and mentally processing them is far more helpful in maintaining a healthy mindset rather than avoidance. This allows individuals to move on after a stressful experience and continue to go about their day to day lives.

Most importantly, don’t be afraid to talk with a trusted friend or family member about your concerns. Overcoming the stigmas associated with mental illness starts with each individual person having the courage to raise their hand and ask for help. Whether you are noticing increasing mood fluctuations, new and unusual behaviors around food, or a host of other symptoms, it’s never too late to ask for support. 

From October 7th through the 13th, individuals around the nation will be focusing on mental illness awareness, but your efforts don’t have to be limited to only one week out of the year. Spend some time with those you love and don’t hesitate to offer a helping hand – it could make a world of difference for someone who needs support.


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