Helping the 1 in 4 with Mental Health Illness

According to Mental Health America (MHA) 1 in 4 (about 57.7 million) American adults live with a diagnosable, treatable mental health condition who can go on to live full and productive lives.  Despite the fact that we all know someone with mental health conditions, few really understand mental health.  Being Mental Health Awareness Month, it’s time to step up to help one in four, and likely many more, dealing with these issues.  Help by understanding each diagnosis, taking these illnesses seriously, and working to stop stigma about mental illness.

There are several types of mental health illnesses including, depression, anxiety, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, schizophrenia, eating disorders, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), and so on (find more about each illness and others at the National Institutes of Mental Health – NIMH).  These illnesses are diagnosed by the DSM-IV (the 4th version of the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual soon to be the 5th edition – more on this later).  Ultimately, a mental health illness is one that disrupts a person’s thinking, feeling, mood, ability to relate to others and daily functioning.  They affect persons of any age, race, religion, or income.

Here are some facts from the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI):

  • Major depressive disorder affects 6.7% of adults or about 14.8 million Americans
  • Anxiety disorders, including panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive
    disorder (OCD), post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), generalized
    anxiety disorder and phobias, affect about 18.7% of adults,
    an estimated 40 million individuals.
  • About 2.4 million Americans, or 1.1% of the adult population, lives with schizophrenia
  • Bipolar disorder affects 5.7 million (2.6% of) American adults
  • About 5.2 million adults have both mental health and substance abuse disorders.
  • 31% of homeless adults have both mental health and substance abuse disorders
  • Male veterans are twice as likely to die by suicide as compared with the general US population
  • 24% of state prisoners and 21% of local jail prisoners have a recent history of a mental health disorder
  • Individuals living with serious mental illness face an increased risk of having chronic medical conditions
  • Adults with serious mental illness die 25 years earlier than other Americans

Despite genetic evidence, neuroscience findings, and decades of research and understanding, many do not understand the impact of mental health illnesses at all.  Others may not believe mental health illnesses are actually medical conditions – believing depression as something you can “just get over” or anxiety as “overreacting.”  Yet these illnesses do exist the same as diabetes or cancer exist.  And for many the effects are life long requiring medication and careful monitoring by a physician and therapist.  Though others, with the proper care, can recover.

Just as bad, if not worse than not believing these illnesses exist at all is the stigma surrounding these illnesses.  People with mental illnesses may be afraid to seek help worrying that they will look crazy, thinking they are just weak, or believing that their illness is their fault and they should or can deal with it on their own.  But not dealing with mental health illness may lead to family issues, relationship problems, alcohol or drug abuse, and financial trouble or perpetuate these issues which may already exist.  Treatment works, but nearly two-thirds of people with a known mental illness never seek help from a health professional.

However, if someone is willing to recognize they have a mental health illness, they may be afraid that people at work or school will find out and believe they are crazy.  They may even suffer discrimination because of their illness.  Though work might understand taking time to take insulin when blood sugars are high, they likely won’t understand needing a moment to get over a panic attack.  Instead, many think those who with mental illnesses are not able to work, are ineffective workers, or are violent and unstable.

Stigma surrounding mental health illness is pervasive. As a result, along with the effects of discrimination, stigma can keep people from getting help by contributing to feelings of low self-esteem, isolation, and hopelessness and impacting access to housing, employment, and community participation.

So how can we help our one in four?

Don’t respond negatively when finding out a friend, co-worker, family member, classmate, neighbor, or others has a mental health illness.  Acceptance makes a huge difference.  See the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMSHA) campaign – What a Difference a Friend Makes.  Knowing that someone will be beside you through the process of recovery, having someone that can offer hope, support and encouragement can have a huge impact.

Don’t allow your preconceived notions of mental illness to enter the picture.  Get informed about the actual diagnosis and listen to how it affects the individual specifically.  Ask what they need but mostly just be there.

(logo from MHA)

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