Mental Health Awareness Month was started in the United States in 1949 by the Mental Health America Organization to shine a light on the importance of mental health and wellness. Each year in the month of May, advocates and activists across the country participate in activities to increase awareness, educate the public, and give a voice to individuals who have mental health challenges.
Why is it so important to bring mental health to the forefront? 1 in 5 Americans experience mental illness and nearly 1 in every 25 individuals live with a serious mental illness in the United States. One of the most vital reasons we talk about mental health is because mental illnesses touch the lives of just about every single American – whether they themselves are experiencing mental health symptoms or they have loved ones who do.
Many People Left Untreated
Nearly 50% of people who experience mental health symptoms don’t get the help that they need. This statistic can be attributed to a number of reasons.
Lack of Awareness
There are many people who don’t know that they may be experiencing symptoms of mental illness, simply because they are not aware of what those symptoms are. Some may believe that their symptoms are just a part of life that they must accept. Others may not attribute physical symptoms as being related to mental health. For instance, emergency rooms frequently see patients come in complaining of shortness of breath, heart palpitations, chest pain, dizziness, numbness of hands and feet, sweating, fainting, and trembling. These patients believe that they are having a heart attack, only to find that their symptoms are related to anxiety or panic attacks.
Getting the word out about mental health symptoms can benefit these individuals. It may lead to them recognizing their symptoms and getting the help they need. Additionally, providing education may lead to family and friends recognizing symptoms and warning signs of mental illness in their loved ones.
Stigma is the negative attitudes and misconceptions that surround mental illness and to people who have mental health challenges. Oftentimes stigma comes in the form of internalized stigma. This means that people who have mental health challenges sometimes aim negative attitudes and misconceptions against themselves. Some of these negative and untrue beliefs that people have about themselves are directly related to their mental health symptoms. Perhaps someone has difficulty finding motivation due to their depression. They may believe that they are “lazy” or “failures,” thinking that these traits are simply just a part of their personality – something that can’t be changed. But this is untrue. Motivation can be increased as depression symptoms start to go away.
Other times people with mental health challenges avoid getting help because they are afraid of what others might think of them. They don’t want to be seen as “crazy,” “weak,” or other negative stereotypes that are prevalent in our society. These fears can be strengthened if friends and family don’t understand the severity of mental health symptoms. Well-meaning support people may say things like “just pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” or “it’s not that bad” but this can actually minimize the struggle and make their loved ones feel worse.
Hopelessness is a common feeling for people who have mental health challenges. Having a mental illness can be extremely painful and overwhelming when left untreated, and without treatment, symptoms can get worse. The longer someone goes on without help, the less they believe that they can get better. Hopelessness increases when people don’t know that mental illnesses are largely treatable and that there are many different treatments and strategies to finding mental wellness. From medications to meditation, getting better is possible!
Lack of Health Care Coverage
Unfortunately, in the United States, it can be difficult for people to get proper health care coverage. Many people are not eligible for Medicaid assistance, which excludes them from a great variety of public mental health services that private insurances won’t cover, such as Assertive Community Treatment, Peer Support, and Case Management. There is a large number of people who do have Medicaid, but have extremely high deductibles that they are not able to meet. And, of course, there are those with no insurance whatsoever. As of last year, 28.5 million people were without medical insurance due to high monthly payments and out-of-pocket costs such as co-pays and deductibles.
Effects of Untreated Mental Illness
Worsening Mental Health Problems
People that have mental health challenges, but do not receive treatment are likely to see their mental health symptoms increase. Symptoms of mental illness do not simply go away on their own, except in very rare cases.
Aches and Pains
Many individuals with mental health challenges also experience physical symptoms. One example of a common physical symptom of an underlying mental health challenge, is the tightening of muscles, which could lead to frequent migraines and muscular injury. Another example is stress-induced gastrointestinal issues.
Chronic Physical Health Problems
There are a couple of different factors that play into an increase in chronic physical health problems for people with mental health challenges. First, chronic mental health issues can be debilitating for people, which makes it difficult to care for their own needs such as going to doctor appointments or taking medications.
Another factor is that many times people with mental health challenges turn to tobacco, alcohol, or drug abuse as a way to “cope” with the symptoms of their mental illness. This can cause adverse health issues such as kidney and liver damage, cancer, seizures, stroke, and brain damage.
And the final factor that comes into play is that chronic stress can lead to serious physical health problems like heart attack, stroke, and obesity.
Homelessness and Job Stability Issues
When a person struggles with mental health challenges, it is difficult for them to cope with the daily stressors of everyday life. This includes going to work or school. Some people have difficulty getting out of bed for work, while others may experience delusions or psychosis, making it difficult to concentrate or communicate with others on the job. This can lead to financial troubles, job loss, or homelessness, making it all the more difficult to cope.
Unfortunately, because of stigma and misinformation, many people consider individuals with mental health challenges dangerous or violent. This is inherently untrue. Mental illness does not cause violence. But it is true that many people with mental health challenges are incarcerated. In fact, 2 million people with mental illness are booked into jails each year. Most of the time, people with mental health challenges are incarcerated for non-violent crimes, such as drug charges or symptom-related behaviors.
Victimization and Trauma
People with untreated mental illnesses are more likely to be victimized than the general population. This is often due to mental health symptoms interfering with brain’s ability to feel happiness and self-worth, react, or think clearly. Victimization leads to trauma and feelings of undue personal fault, which only feeds into the difficulty that the individual is already experiencing.
Mental illnesses are serious and potentially life-threatening. When left untreated, mental illnesses can cloud one’s judgement so thoroughly that it makes life seem unbearable and hopeless. When people feel this way, they may begin to see only one way out: suicide. They may not realize that recovery and mental health wellness is possible. They might not know that with the right treatment and support, they can live full, contented lives.
If you or someone close to you is struggling with untreated mental health issues or suicidal thoughts, it is important reach out for help. There is hope.
What You Can Do
Whether you are a person with mental health challenges or an ally, there are things that you can do to bring mental health awareness to the public and bring hope to those who don’t think there is any. Here are a couple of suggestions of things you can do to make a difference:
The more we know about mental illness, the better we can recognize symptoms in ourselves and in others. You can do this by doing your own independent research on the internet using reputable sources, by taking a trip to the library, or by taking a class on the basics of mental health. LifeWays Community Mental Health offers Mental Health First Aid trainings for people who want to learn more about mental health and how to help others.
Another great way to learn about mental health is by simply listening to those who have mental health challenges, and learn about their realities. You will probably find that people with mental health challenges are resilient, brave folks, and are nothing like the stereotypes you may have heard about.
Flip the Script
Take a stand against stigma. Whether you are in conversation or you see negative portrayals of people with mental illness in the media, challenge those false beliefs about mental illness. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) provides great resources to help you change the way the world sees mental health.
Share Your Story
If you are a person with a mental health challenge, one way that you can make a big impact on the way people see mental illness is by sharing your personal story. You can do this by talking with your supporters about the symptoms that you experience, talking about warning signs, and how they can best support you. These conversations can be facilitated by a therapist or other mental health professionals, and there are even family groups, such as Family Psycho-Education, which provides individuals and their loved ones with education about mental illnesses, skill-building, and guidance about managing mental health symptoms in a supportive environment.
You may also want to share your recovery story with others that are going through a hard time. Hearing from someone else who has experienced mental health challenges and who are on the road to recovery can help people find hope and resilience within themselves. This can be done in a casual setting with a friend, or perhaps you would be interested in a career as a peer support. Peers are individuals with mental health challenges who are able to support others receiving mental health services through community mental health and contract providers. By sharing their recovery story, peers are able to connect with others on a personal level of understanding and empathy.
Luckily, Michigan is one of the leading states when it comes to peer support. We currently have six different peer support specializations:
- Peer Support for adults with mental health challenges;
- Youth Peer Support to support youth with Serious Emotional Disturbance;
- Peer Recovery Coaches, who support individuals with substance abuse disorders;
- Veteran Peer Support, for individuals who have served in the U.S. Military and has a mental health and/or co-occurring condition;
- Peer Mentors, who support people with intellectual or developmental disabilities, and
- Parent Support Partners, for parents or care-givers of children with Serious Emotional Disturbance or intellectual/developmental disabilities
Support Your Loved Ones
For individuals who have people in their lives with mental health challenges, taking the time to listen to their story: their hardships, and successes, learning about their illnesses, and asking them how you can best support them, can make a world of a difference. Knowing that there is someone out there who cares and who wants to walk alongside you in your journey of mental health recovery really makes a difference for people with mental illnesses.
Advocate for Change
There is still much work to be done in the way of advocating for people with mental health challenges, but with persistence, we can make a difference.
Talk to Legislators and Policy-Makers: Call upon the people who can make policies and laws that support people with mental illnesses. You can call, write, or e-mail your representatives about the importance of mental health and protecting individuals who experience mental health challenges. If you yourself are a person with a mental health challenge, you might even consider sharing your personal story through speaking and essay writing opportunities. If this is a route you’d be interested in, make sure that you take time to think about how you can share your story in a way that can be heard and understood as well as protect the areas of your story that you are not ready or willing to share. It may be beneficial to work with someone who can assist you in preparing your story for a public audience.
Get Involved in Committees: Most communities have committees and groups dedicated to erasing stigma, supporting people with mental health challenges, and working with government officials such as police officers and legislators to create safe and supportive communities for people with mental health challenges. NAMI Michigan is a grassroots organization dedicated to improving the lives of people with serious mental illnesses and their families. Jackson Suicide Prevention Coalition is a group in Jackson, Michigan, that is dedicated reducing suicide and stopping stigma.
Attend Mental Health-Related Events: There are many advocacy, awareness, and fundraising events that work toward supporting people with mental illnesses. For instance, the Michigan Association of Community Mental Health Boards holds the Walk a Mile Rally each year at the Capitol in Lansing to raise awareness and promote mental health and wellness and the Jackson Suicide Prevention Coalition, in partnership with LifeWays Community Mental Health holds an event called Stomp Out Suicide. This event is held in Jackson each year to honor those who have lost their lives to suicide, celebrate survivors, and spread awareness.
Vote: Your vote makes a difference. In fact, earlier this month, Jackson voters overwhelmingly agreed to increase funding for individuals with mental health challenges that lack or have insufficient health care coverage to receive the treatment that they need. The millage was proposed and led by Citizens for Mental Health, a small group of individuals who are passionate about providing mental health care to those in need.
Mental health awareness and advocacy are extremely important to the lives of individuals with mental health challenges and those that love them. The month of May is a time to come together and take a stand for mental health, but we should all strive to stop stigma, increase awareness, and advocate for people with mental health challenges every day. Together, we can make positive changes for the future!