Mental Health Month: Why You Should Care

Be part of the solution to stopping the stigma

Photo by Christopher Campbell on Unsplash

In case you missed it, May is Mental Health Month. This is a nationwide effort to raise public awareness and help end the stigma for people with mental illness.

“More than 300 million people around the world suffer from depression and almost 800,000 people die due to suicide every year, the second leading cause of death in 15–29-year-olds,” according to the World Health Organization. “Fewer than half of those affected by depression receive treatment and in many countries the figure is less than 10%.”

Perhaps you, a relative, friend, co-worker or acquaintance are dealing with a challenging mental health issue. If so, there are concrete steps you can take to help ease any embarrassment, ostracism, humiliation and/or discrimination which is too often associated with mental illness.

As public discourse about mental health issues increases, the associated stigma decreases.

That’s why it’s critically important to shine a spotlight on a range of mental health conditions affecting people of all ages, from depression to dementia.

Fostering open communication, education, advocacy and outreach are solid strategies to eradicate myths, fears and stereotypes about mental illness.

Video Courtesy of NAMI.org

Daunting Data

Consider the following statistics from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI):

  • “Approximately 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. (46.6 million) experiences mental illness in a given year.”
  • “Approximately 1 in 25 adults in the U.S. (11.2 million) experiences a serious mental illness in a given year that substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities.”

“Approximately 1 in 5 youth aged 13–18 (21.4%) experiences a severe mental disorder at some point during their life. For children aged 8–15, the estimate is 13%.” — NAMI

  • “1.1% of adults in the U.S. live with schizophrenia.”
  • “2.6% of adults in the U.S. live with bipolar disorder.”
  • “6.9% of adults in the U.S. — 16 million — had at least one major depressive episode in the past year.”
  • “18.1% of adults in the U.S. experienced an anxiety disorder such as post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and specific phobias.”
  • “Among the 20.2 million adults in the U.S. who experienced a substance use disorder, 50.5% — 10.2 million adults — had a co-occurring mental illness.”
Image Credit: NAMI

NAMI explains the following about its latest social media outreach effort #WhyCare:

The WhyCare? campaign is an opportunity to share the importance of mental health treatment, support and services to the millions of people, families, caregivers and loved ones affected by mental illness,” says NAMI, “and a challenge to address broken systems and attitudes that present barriers to treatment and recovery.”

Ending the Stigma

There’s still a huge public stigma associated with mental illness, even in today’s modern age. Will it ever end?

Perhaps more people will come to terms with the reality that mental illness is similar, in a general sense, to any other serious illness — such as diabetes or cancer, for example.

But other illnesses aren’t considered taboo topics in society at large.

Even though mental health support groups and advocacy organizations have grown over the years, the stigma lingers. We hear about mental illness in the news, but usually in connection to mass shootings, suicides and related personal and societal tragedies.

Image Credit: NAMI

These negative stories only serve to reinforce the public myths, fears and stereotypes which already abound. It’s rare to see a positive story in the news media about people with mental illness. Reporters should focus more on explanatory journalism and highlight success stories.

The media and entertainment industries should shine a more positive spotlight on challenges and achievements of those with mental illness.

We unify for Mental Health Month and similar public interest campaigns to raise awareness and help those in need. However, most people then go back to their daily routines and don’t think much about this persistent problem unless they are personally affected.

Photo by Mitch Lensink on Unsplash

Children & Teens

It’s also important to recognize that young people are particularly vulnerable to developing mental health conditions during their teens and twenties.

“Half of all lifetime mental health conditions begin by age 14 and 75% by age 24. Early intervention programs can help.” — NAMI

Why care? Because children, teens and 20-somethings represent our future. Young people are the next generation of leadership. This alone should explain why you should consider getting more involved.

“I care because one in five children in the U.S. will experience a mental illness and only half of those kids will get treatment,” says AJ Mendez Brooks, “I care because suicide is the second leading cause of death among most children and teens.”

Ponder these four questions, especially as they relate to young people:

  1. How as a society can we address vexing issues of mental health in a more effective and empathetic way?
  2. How can we accept mental illness for what it really is (a common disease), rather than what it is not (something only “crazy” people get)?
  3. What’s the appropriate role for government, the media and private industry to help end the stigma?
  4. Is it even possible to end the centuries-old stigma or is this merely wishful thinking?

These perplexing questions have no quick fixes. If the answers were easy we would have found them by now.

Infographic Courtesy of NAMI

EEOC’s Role

Many mental health conditions— such as depression, anxiety and panic disorder — fall under the workplace protections of the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, as amended (ADA).

In addition to other laws enforced, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) investigates, litigates and voluntarily resolves ADA cases of job discrimination based on mental impairments (in addition to physical disability impairments).

The EEOC also conducts national outreach on employee rights and employer responsibilities because proactive prevention is the best medicine.

EEOC says, “It is illegal for an employer to discriminate against you simply because you have a mental health condition. This includes firing you.”

Likewise, it is unlawful under federal, state and local anti-discrimination statutes for companies to perpetrate any adverse action impacting a qualified worker’s terms and conditions of employment due to a mental illness.

Chris Kuczynski is an expert on disability employment law. He’s a long-time Assistant Legal Counsel at the EEOC with whom I worked during my tenure as a national media spokesman.

Chris told me that some companies still harbor many myths and fears regarding safety risks purportedly posed by persons with mental illness.

“Mental disabilities are as diverse as physical disabilities in terms of how they manifest and how they are treated.”

Moreover, the stigma surrounding mental disabilities is related to the fact that they’re usually hidden, which only compounds the problem.

“We fear what we can’t see. The same is true for hidden physical disabilities.” — Chris Kuczynski, EEOC

His advice to employers: “If you can’t see a disability you may not understand it. That’s why it’s so important for employers to get the best and most accurate information possible about the disability they are dealing with.”

He adds this significant piece of information which is contrary to conventional wisdom:

“The safety risks associated with mental disabilities are no greater than the safety risks associated with the population generally.”

Final Thoughts

Mental illness is a harrowing disease which has been poorly portrayed in the media and popular culture for too long.

While medical treatments have vastly improved over the decades, not all mental illnesses can be mitigated all the time.

Moreover, the personal and professional disgrace associated with mental health conditions remains troubling. People still use blatantly derogatory terms like “lunatic” and “nutty” to describe people with mental illness, both openly and behind closed doors.

It’s worrisome that in today’s modern high-tech Information Age the same old myths, fears and stereotypes about mental illness still plague society.

  • Too many people still suffer in silence.
  • Too many people still refuse treatment.
  • Too many people go undiagnosed.
  • Too much discrimination and harassment still exists.

Consider these wise words about mental illness:

  • The World Health Organization (WHO) urges, “When life feels overwhelming, never be afraid to ask for help. There is absolutely no shame in doing so.”
  • Lady Gaga’s foundation, Born This Way, notes: “The simple action of showing we care is a powerful way to change lives of those affected by mental illness.”
  • NAMI points out, “Talking, sharing, and educating ourselves on mental health are just a few ways you can be a part of the movement.”

It’s possible that breakthroughs in medical technology, biomedical research, neuroscience and nanotechnology will ultimately alleviate or cure most mental health conditions. But until that day arrives, hundreds of millions of people worldwide will continue to suffer in silence.

This situation is neither fair nor reasonable for the 46 million Americans with a mental illness because your mental health is just as important as your physical health.

It’s also important to understand that many people with mental illness don’t come forward due to social stigmatization. This means the total number of people with mental health conditions is likely much higher than officially reported. The current figure may represent the proverbial “tip of the iceberg.”

We can all do more to help end the stigma during Mental Health Month, as well as every day and month.

The current situation is simply untenable.

* Why do you care?

* Will you be part of the solution?

* Please share your valuable comments below and use the following hashtags on social media:

#WhyCare #EndTheStigma #MentalHealthMonth #Mentalillness

Note: A similar version of this article first appeared in American Diversity Report, where the author is an advisory board member and contributor.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: David is a strategic communications consultant and freelance writer based in the Washington, DC-area. He was previously a national media spokesman for the U.S. EEOC and served as a political appointee for President Bill Clinton. David worked in journalism prior to his career of public service. You can also find him on LinkedIn and Twitter.

Strategic communications consultant advancing social justice and corporate social responsibility | former career spokesman at U.S. EEOC | DC-based, NY-bred

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