Break the Stigma: Mental Health Awareness Month

Category: Mental Health
9 minute read.

May 1949 marked the first celebrations of Mental Health Awareness month. Since then, the arrival of the month of May marks a (annual) heightened and renewed focus on mental health education. Coupled with attempting to foster a greater understanding of mental health, Mental Health Awareness month seeks to destroy the stigma surrounding mental health diagnoses and treatment.

As our understanding of mental illness and its adverse effects on the lives of millions of Americans, many people wonder why only one month of the year is dedicated to developing a better understanding of mental health struggles. Mental health struggles often lead to more significant physical and emotional health challenges. For example, a publication from Harvard Health indicated that “anxiety has now been implicated in several chronic physical illnesses, including heart disease, chronic respiratory disorders, and gastrointestinal conditions.” Knowing what we know about the lifelong effects of mental illness, it is understandable that so many people question why mental health does not receive more attention.

Explaining Mental Illness

Mental illness is a disease of the brain. While a physical illness causes disruptions in function within the body and body systems, a mental illness affects how the brain functions and communicates. Disturbances in brain function can affect thinking, behavior, energy, or emotions (or a combination of), making it challenging to cope with the day-to-day demands of life.

There are many potential contributing factors to mental illness. Research has uncovered links to genetics, alterations in brain chemistry, abnormal or altered brain structure, experiencing trauma, and having another medical condition such as heart disease. In addition, long-term substance use and abuse can contribute to the development or exacerbation of some mental illnesses.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) lists almost 300 mental health diagnoses. Indeed some are far more common or familiar than others. Based on data from the National Institutes of Health, the two most common mental health conditions in the United States are:

  • Anxiety disorders- almost twenty percent of adults struggle with some form of anxiety disorder each year. Anxiety disorders include many well-known diagnoses such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), panic disorder (or panic attacks), generalized anxiety disorder, and specific phobias.
  • Mood disorders- nearly ten percent of adults are affected by mood disorders. A mood disorder is a condition where one has difficulties regulating their mood. With these conditions, a person can experience significant and unpredictable swings in mood and emotion. Illnesses such as depression and bipolar disorder fall under the category of mood disorders.

Statistics on Mental Illness in America

Hundreds of thousands of dollars annually go into research on mental illness in America. As a result, hundreds of statistics are available to help us learn more about mental health diagnosis, treatment options, and prevalence rates. Under normal circumstances, the availability of such data would be considered beneficial in evaluating how an illness impacts society. Generally, a better understanding of a particular subject helps provide funding for additional research, treatment, and education. More significant research should lead to greater awareness. Unfortunately, when it comes to mental illness, this is not always the case.

Estimates show that mental illnesses affect approximately nineteen percent of the adult population each year. Also, roughly forty-six percent of teenagers and thirteen percent of children will receive a diagnosis or experience symptoms related to mental illness in a given year. This equates to approximately one in four American people who have a mental illness. In a different context, that number is about 83,000,000 people based on our current population here in the United States! That is a massive number for a category of illness we only call awareness to one month out of the year.

Mental Illness and Stigma

The numbers above are indeed staggering, but they are likely inaccurate. Many who struggle with mental illness symptoms do not seek treatment or evaluation due to the stigma attached to mental health. Nearly half of the younger generation (adolescents, teens, and early twenties) across the globe are experiencing mental health problems. Most of them are experiencing various forms of depression or anxiety disorders. These illnesses stem from peer pressure, challenges with their family dynamic, and poor self-esteem. Experiencing these issues and attempting to struggle through them alone can result in an individual resorting to a host of dangerous activities as a form of coping mechanism.

The stigmas surrounding mental health problems come from those who do not understand the symptoms someone may exhibit or the emotions they may feel when they have a mental illness. People with depression are dismissed as lonely or needing a “push” to get on with their lives. People who are anxious or paranoid are often seen as frustrating and annoying due to their outbursts or mood swings. Even those who died of suicide due to their mental illness are dubbed immature, cowards, or failures because they couldn’t “deal with” their emotions. These stigmas and many others are why mental health awareness needs more than thirty days of attention at a time.

The fear of labels and stigma is the primary reason people do not seek treatment for mental illness. Nearly half of those who experience mental health symptoms will not discuss their concerns and will not reach out for treatment or support. Some will try to struggle alone and perhaps be mildly successful. Others may lose their lives to mental illness when the struggle becomes too much to handle.

Like a physical illness, mental illnesses can be treated and, in many cases, cured. Early and effective treatment and aftercare planning lead to more effective treatment outcomes and the ability to move forward from their mental illness.

Mental Health Awareness Month, Every Month

Although the general perception of mental illness has slowly improved over recent decades, more work remains. Recent studies show the stigmas (some noted above and others) surrounding mental illness and those with mental illness are still very powerful. Stigmas stay alive and well primarily due to media stereotypes, lack of education and understanding, and the fact that people tend to relate negative stigma to mental illness at a far higher rate than other diseases such as cancer or heart disease.

Stigma affects both the number of people who choose to seek treatment and the availability of resources for those people to receive proper, individualized treatment. While you cannot force someone to seek treatment, there are a few things you can do to help alleviate stigma and continue to raise awareness.

  • Show those with mental illness respect and acceptance. This helps to reduce the barriers they may experience around coping with their illness. When they feel they are “seen” as an individual rather than a condition, it can make a significant difference. It may also help them feel more comfortable seeking treatment.
  • Advocate-whether in your circle of influence or among friends and family, advocacy can and will continue to go a long way in helping to increase societal acceptance of mental illness.
  • Educate yourself-learning more about mental health and mental illness can help you to provide meaningful and helpful support to those who deal with mental illness both in our families and in the community. 

Continued progress in raising awareness can help to create new opportunities for those with a mental illness. If the public continues to increase the demand for education and services, it will produce new and much-needed attention to this critical topic. Renewed focus can result in improvements in funding, policy, research, and development of services and treatment options. Also, there is a great misconception that surrounds the mentally ill.

Sometimes people think those who are experiencing mental health symptoms are lazy or just making it up for attention. There is also an attitude that people with mental illness are either crazy, violent, unsafe, or out of control. Their negative misconceptions are further enhanced by words and phrases commonly used as part of our daily speech. How many times have you heard terms such as “I had a panic attack,” “He’s just a little OCD,” or even “she is SO bipolar.”?

These phrases are just a simple descriptor we do not think a lot about if we are part of the population who does not struggle with a mental illness. For those who do, especially the most vulnerable such as teens and tweens, the message often translates to an expectation to battle in silence. Simple words and phrases can come across as judgmental. 

Mental health awareness should not be something we celebrate or encourage for just a month each year. Given the prevalence of mental illness here in the United States, we must provide a larger platform for awareness and education. Mental illness does not discriminate based on wealth, religion, race, or creed. It can happen to you, your children, your neighbor, or anyone else you know. Community awareness around mental health reduces the stigma that causes people to avoid seeking treatment.

Successful Recovery

Mental health awareness increases the chances of early intervention, which is key to the most complete and successful recovery. Awareness also reduces the negative adjectives commonly used to describe people with a mental illness. Awareness is rooted in education. The more we can teach, and the more people know, the more power there will be to instill change and positively affect our communities and school systems. Mental health awareness is also a critical factor in understanding mental health and mental illness and how families can receive the help they need for their children and loved ones.

If you or a loved one are struggling with mental health and the fear of the stigma surrounding treatment and diagnosis is inhibiting the ability to seek help, contact us at The Los Angeles Outpatient Center. At our California treatment center, we understand people’s fear and anxiety concerning their mental health. Our treatment team here will work with you to design a care plan suited specifically to your treatment needs and goals. Recovery is challenging without treatment, and successful treatment is impossible without taking those first steps.