Each year millions of Americans face the reality of living with a mental illness. During the Month of May we fight stigma, provide support, educate the public and advocate for policies that support people with mental illness and their families. One in 5 Americans is affected by mental health conditions. Stigma is toxic to their mental health because it creates an environment of shame, fear and silence that prevents many people from seeking help and treatment. The perception of mental illness won’t change unless we act to change it.
Mental Health Month raises awareness of trauma and the impact it can have on the physical, emotional, and mental well-being of children, families, and communities. Mental Health Month was established in 1949 to increase awareness of the importance of mental health and wellness in Americans’ lives, and to celebrate recovery from mental illness. Mental health is essential for a person’s overall health. Prevention works, treatment is effective, and people can recover from mental disorders and live full and productive lives.
Although the general perception of mental illness has improved over the past decades, studies show that stigma against mental illness is still powerful, largely due to media stereotypes and lack of education, and that people tend to attach negative stigmas to mental health conditions at a far higher rate than to other diseases and disabilities, such as cancer, diabetes or heart disease. Stigma affects not only the number seeking treatment, but also the number of resources available for proper treatment. Stigma and misinformation can feel like overwhelming obstacles for someone who is struggling with a mental health condition.
Much discussion of mental health focuses on genetics, brain chemicals, and other biological phenomena. It’s true that mental illness is biological, but that does not mean that all cases of mental illness are hard-wired. The environment can affect the behavior of genes, as the emerging study of epigenetics is making ever more clear. Stressful and deprived environments can alter the way genes behave, triggering mental illness. For example, recent research has linked growing up with food insecurity to an increased risk of mental health difficulties.
There are more than 200 classified forms of mental illness, according to Mental Health America. Some of the more common disorders are depression, bipolar disorder, dementia, schizophrenia and anxiety disorders. Symptoms may include changes in mood, personality, personal habits and/or social withdrawal. Treatment helps the brain re-learn new ways of processing information as it helps the client cope with difficult emotions. And just as the environment can shape people toward mental illness, treatment can help pull them away from it. The environment in which people grow up also teaches them how to handle everything from daily stress to serious trauma.
The goals of better understanding mental health diagnoses and improving societal empathy should not be limited to the month of May, but it’s certainly a good time to refocus our efforts. Mental health is just as important as physical health when it comes to overall well being. People underestimate what a big impact it can have on your health, and there are resources and help for those who need it.