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Published on May 22, 2013

Mental Health Awareness Month

By Mary Carole Curran, Ph.D.
Avera Medical Group Behavioral Health Yankton

Every month of our calendar year seems to have some cause for which we are to shine the light of awareness and celebration.  The month of May is certainly no exception.   Perhaps you are not aware that May is National Stroke Association Awareness Month, National Salad Month, Asthma Awareness Month, National Egg Month, National Cancer Research Month, Bicycle Safety Month, Mediterranean Diet Month, Lupus Awareness Month, Liver Awareness Month, National Arthritis Month, Ultraviolet Awareness Month, Better Sleep Month, Meditation Month, Clean Air Month, National Barbecue Month and Mental Health Awareness Month.  Mental Health Awareness Month was saved for last, as last is where mental health frequently sits on the continuum of health care priorities in our country.

Mental Health Awareness Month was initiated in 1949 by Mental Health America, an advocacy organization dedicated to helping ALL people living mentally healthy lives by raising awareness about mental health conditions and promoting mental wellness. The theme of this May’s Mental Health Awareness Month is “Pathways to Wellness”. We may not think much about our ‘mental health’ or even use that phrase, but it’s a common element in all our lives. Most of us take our ‘mental health’ for granted. After all, since it’s such a fundamental, yet unseen part of who we are, it doesn’t seem to merit a lot of thought compared to everything else going on in our lives or in the world.  The reality is that ‘mental health’ is a major factor in all aspects of each of our lives. We see it play out in our relationships, in our performance at work or school and in health issues.

Today, protecting and strengthening our ‘mental health’ couldn’t be more important. With our fast paced, 24/7 culture, we face more stress from our daily lives than ever before. Many of us work extended hours or multiple jobs, and take less vacation. In fact, one in three American employees is chronically overworked. The line between work and home life is often blurred, so home is no longer a place of rest. Sleep and exercise feel like luxuries. We are eating poorly or skipping meals more often. We are constantly bombarded with information. We are also more disconnected from family, friends and neighbors, and less engaged in our communities than we used to be. Trust in one another has steadily declined over the last 30 years. Kids aren’t immune either; many are racing from one activity to another without any downtime. Silence is a rare commodity.

All of us live with these daily threats to our ‘mental health.’ Many of us also face additional challenges that test us and put our mental health at risk. For some of us, it is the stress of care giving or divorce or losing a loved one. For others it is loss of a job, living with a disease such as diabetes, cancer, or hypertension, while others contend with addiction to alcohol or drugs, survive domestic abuse, a street crime or disasters like tornados or drought.

Whatever the source of the threat, how able we are to deal with these challenges can positively or negatively impact our ‘mental health,’ overall health and well-being. When considering all the ways it can affect each of us and our society, the issue of ‘mental health’ amounts to the largest public health and economic concern in the country.

We know at least some of the problems. Twenty-five percent of adults suffer a diagnosable mental disorder each year, and mental health problems affect 20 percent of young people.  Military personnel have the highest rate of suicides in history, and the suicide rate in veterans has passed the civilian population.  Mental health problems take a high toll on workplaces, costing businesses more than $79 billion a year, $63 billion of it in lost productivity.  Each year, 217 million work days are completely or partially lost due to mental disorders. Millions of people don’t have access to the mental health care they need.  College-aged shooters are carrying out some of the worst atrocities of our time.  Report after report; headline after headline details the endless need for mental health in our nation.

We don’t need to turn on the news to see this pain.  We see it in our friends and families. Most of us probably know someone suffering from mental illness—a friend who gets the blues during bleak winter months, a relative whose thinking may not seem rational, or a colleague whose angry moods never seem to subside.  These symptoms may affect a person’s capacity to cope with daily life in a number of ways: disrupting a person’s thinking, feeling, mood, ability to relate to others, and daily functioning. It is hard to find a population of individuals more forgotten, misunderstood or discriminated against than those living with mental illness.

Facts about mental health problems are indisputable: They do not reflect anyone’s personal weakness, lack of character, or upbringing.  Emotional problems can affect people of any age, race or income.  A person’s profession or religious affiliation does not cause or “brand” one with illness, nor is it any kind of punishment.  Mental illness is a medical condition—just as diabetes is—and like diabetes, mental health issues are largely treatable through one or a combination of therapies.

As a society we must become myth busters, countering some of the myths and false beliefs about mental health problems with truth. 

Myth: I can’t do anything for a person with mental illness.
Truth: You can do a lot, starting with how you act and speak. You can create an environment that builds on people’s strengths and promotes understanding. For example: Don’t label people” or define them by their diagnosis. Instead of saying someone is “a schizophrenic,” say; he or she “has schizophrenia.” Don’t say “a depressed person,” say “a person with depression.” This is called “people-first” language, and it’s important to make a distinction between the person and the illness.

Myth: Mental illnesses are brought on by a weakness of character.
Truth: Mental illnesses are a product of the interaction of biological, psychological, and social factors. Social influences, like the loss of a loved one or a job, can also contribute to the development of various mental health problems.

Myth: Children don’t experience mental illnesses. Their actions are just products of bad parenting.
Truth: In any given year five to nine percent of children experience serious emotional disturbances. Just like adult mental illnesses, these are clinically diagnosable health conditions that are a product of the interaction of biological, biological, psychological, social, and sometimes even genetic factors.

Myth: Mental illnesses don’t affect me.
Truth: Mental illnesses are surprisingly common; they affect almost every family in America. Mental illnesses do not discriminate—they can affect anyone.  Ten percent of children and adolescents in the US suffer from serious emotional mental health disorders that significantly impairs their day to day lives at home, school and with their peers.

Myth: Individuals with mental illness are dangerous and violent
Truth: Those living with mental illness are no more violent than those without these disorders.  Individuals living with mental health challenges are more likely to hurt themselves than others.  Suicide is the third leading cause of death in youth aged 10 to 24.

Myth: Once people develop mental illnesses, they will never recover.
Truth: Treatment of many serious emotional and mental health disorders is effective.  Psychotherapy, behavioral interventions, medications, and connection to one’s community have been shown to be extremely helpful interventions, and have about an 80% success rate.

Myth: Seeking psychotherapy means you have “serious” problems.
Truth: Seeing a therapist is healthy, normal, positive and proactive. Therapy can teach you strategies to process your emotions and cope with life stressors, help identify and change negative beliefs or patterns in your life and understand more about your behaviors, relationships and yourself.

Be a mental health advocate. The following steps build and maintain well-being and help us all achieve mental wellness:

  • Balanced diet
  • Regular exercise
  • Enough sleep
  • A sense of self-worth
  • Development of coping skill
  • Emotional awareness
  • Connections to family, friends and community.

For more information, please contact Avera Medical Group Behavioral Health Yankton at 605-655-1240 or 888-668-8700.