10 Things You Need to Know for Mental Health Awareness Month (And Every Month)

Mental illnesses tend to make headlines in times of tragedy: a school shooting, an airplane crash, a suicide. These stories are not only tragic in their own right, the media coverage also often reinforces harmful stereotypes and false information about mental illness.

That’s why it’s so important to discuss the reality of living with a mental illness. May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and May 4–11 is National Anxiety and Depression Awareness Week, so I’d like to present 10 facts you should know about mental illnesses.

1. They are a lot more common than you think. One in four adults lives with a mental illness in a given year, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and one in 17 live with serious illnesses such as bipolar disorder, major depression or schizophrenia. That means that if you know more than four people (and I’m assuming you do), you know not just one, but multiple people who have suffered or are suffering from a mental illness. So think about that as you read the rest of these facts — they’re about your friend, your family member, your coworker, the barista in the coffee shop, your doctor, your teacher…anyone.

And that’s OK.

2. You might be surprised by who some of these people with mental illnesses are. Just because your friend is super successful or a big joker doesn’t make them immune from illness of any kind. In fact, they may be masking their pain with these jokes or good grades/career success. When you consider that Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, Louis C.K., Bruce Springsteen, Angelina Jolie and even BEYONCE have all made this list of people with major depressive disorder, it’s easier to realize that you or a very successful acquaintance could also be one of the one in four.

3. Mental illnesses are not just for white girls. To piggyback off of #2, mental illnesses do not discriminate by age, gender, socioeconomic background, race or ethnicity. They are not just a “phase” that teenage white girls go through (a common and harmful misconception about eating disorders in particular). To think otherwise is problematic because it diminishes the real suffering that not only the white women with these illness face, but further marginalizes other minority groups who are suffering with an illness. African Americans, Hispanics and non-Hispanics of other races are more likely than whites to report major depression, with American Indians and Alaskan natives reporting at twice the national average. These groups are also less likely to receive adequate treatment or any treatment at all. Further, although gay men only represent 5 percent of the total male population, 42 percent of men living with an eating disorder identify as gay.

4. Anxiety and stress are not interchangeable. While the physical symptoms of stress and anxiety are similar, the distinction lies in the causes and how you deal with them. Anxiety is often due to internal stressors, like fear of the unknown, whereas stress is caused by external stressors, such as a deadline for work or school. You can roll up your sleeves and face stress head-on, but because anxiety is really our fight-or-flight response triggering when there is no physical threat to fight or flee from, treating anxiety requires a different approach.

5. It really is that big of a deal. If someone struggling with these illnesses could just “snap out of it,” they would. If a friend or family member is currently struggling with an attack or other symptoms, be patient. Give them the space or attention they need as you are able. Everyone is different, experiences his or her illnesses differently and has different needs. If you aren’t sure what they need, ask them specifically (Would you like me to stay? Can I put my arm around you? Can I get you [insert calming object/sound/etc. here]?)

6. Don’t self-diagnose. Here’s where I get a little angry: Mental illnesses are not fashionable. They are not edgy. They are not a “get-out-of-jail-free card” for being unkind to others. They will not make you “fit in,” they will not make you “different,” they will not make you “quirky.” If you think it is cute to claim to have OCD because you like all of your pens organized by color, or that you have an anxiety disorder because tests make you sweat, or social anxiety because you get awkward around new people, you’re wrong. Cut it out. You’re disrespecting everyone who truly lives with these disorders and has their lives disrupted by them. If you do think that you are displaying symptoms of a mental illness and they are disrupting your everyday life, please speak with a licensed therapist in your area — one who specializes in your concerns, if possible. There is no shame in seeking help. If you are diagnosed, take your illness and treatment seriously. If you are not diagnosed — or you know you aren’t likely to actually have the disorder and don’t bother to see a doctor — stop disrespecting others’ experiences. Which brings me to the next point…

7. Your “jokes” are a dick move. As I noted above, “jokes” such as “The weather is so bipolar,” “I’m so OCD about how my desk is organized,” “That person was weird, what a schizo,” and “I love food too much to be anorexic” are really not funny. They are not cool. These statements trivialize the struggles that millions of people (your friends, your family, your coworkers, remember?) are facing every day. They reinforce stigmas that make people feel ashamed about their struggles and seeking help, which can worsen their illness and lead to more physical ailments and even death by suicide or another cause. So stop.

Okay, I’m calm now…

8. Speaking of calm, did you know that people with mental illness are less likely to be violent to others than you might think? Suffering with a major mental illness does make you more likely to commit a violent act than the general population, but a previous history of violence is actually a far greater indicator. Drug and alcohol use also compounds the risk of violence. In addition, people living with mental illnesses are more likely to be a victim of violence than the general population, including violence they inflict upon themselves. There are a variety of factors that play into these stats — including stigma — so I would encourage you to flip through these slides for all the info.

Displays several risk factors for violent behaviors. (source)

9. Mental illnesses should be treated in the same way as physical illnesses. Would you ever tell someone with cancer to “just get over it”? To “snap out of it,” to say “it’s not that bad” or even “it’s all in your head”? Then why look someone with a mental illness in the eye and say the same? Fortunately, laws were put into place in the U.S. recently that require insurance companies to treat mental health care the same as physical care in terms of coverage. They’re an “invisible illness” — in the same category as Lupus, chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia and yes, even cancer. So no, it is not “all in our head” and, even if we were to entertain the idea that is solely in our heads, those with mental illness are even stronger for battling their own mind every single day. Is that something you would like to do?

10. Though I was never diagnosed and cannot know for sure, I displayed some OCD-like symptoms and behaviors when I was as young as 6 years old (I eventually stopped those specific behaviors after a year or two). I had my first panic attack and my first suicidal thought when I was 11 years old. Since then, I’ve had more anxiety and panic attacks than I can count, and the suicidal thoughts can come barreling in even on my best days. Eventually, when I was 15, I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder and depression and, despite treatment, still live with my illness every day. Stress management and regularly planning fun activities + “me” time is a huge priority for me to keep my overall anxiety levels down, but attacks can still come on at literally any time. The disorder has affected my ability to reach my full potential, and put unnecessary strain on my relationships.

This isn’t something I talk about with many people primarily because of stigmas, but it’s about time I let the world know. Because it doesn’t define me. This is not a cry for help or pity. This is to help you realize that I am the same person I was before you found out I have a mental illness. So is your friend, your parent, your child, your teacher, the bus driver, your coworker and everyone else. Be mindful of their struggles, but do not reduce their humanity to a diagnosis.

If someone you care about lives with a mental illness, there are tons of resources you can check out based on your relationship to that person. The National Alliance on Mental Illness’s guide for coping with mental illness in your immediate family is a great place to start, no matter what your relationship with that person or people. Look in the “Find Support” tab for more specific resources.

If you need help, NAMI also has resources, and here is the link again to find a therapist in your area. Feel free to do as much research as you’d like on your condition and treatment options, being sure to focus on reports from reputable sources and medical specialists. You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do, but try to stay open minded about your options, and remember that just because something worked for another person doesn’t necessarily mean it will work for you — and vice versa.

Remember that you are not alone, and you are not your diagnosis.

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