As we do every year, we’re recognizing Mental Health Awareness Month this May. In the past, this month was often used to bring light to the plight of individuals who have experienced the often-devastating effects of mental health issues. The mental health community has made great strides in helping to break down at least a few of the preconceived notions about individuals experiencing or recovering from mental illness.
However, regardless of how much effort has gone into trying to overcome stigma and ignorance, there still remain overarching themes that I find very concerning and disturbing. This year has been a year like no other: affecting people in new and confusing ways. I wanted to take time this month to share my thoughts, after having lived through the difficult year we all have experienced.
In my circle of acquaintances, work colleagues, and family members, I am unable to identify one person who has not been touched by mental health concerns, either for themselves or a loved one. In the past, I have shared my story as a family member who struggled to work through the mental health system for my child, the same system I work in, as well as the education system which felt a high school degree was the endpoint for him — rather than a life with a fulfilling career of his choice.
He worked hard and was fortunate, having unlimited support and understanding from so many around him. Despite low expectations from doctors and school counselors, he was able to succeed with his determination and the support of his family and friends. I am sure each of you can list more than a handful of individuals you know who have similar stories or are dealing with diagnosed or undiagnosed issues that have impacted their lives in a negative way. I do often wonder why this is so — why do people still feel that individuals with mental illness of any degree are less than themselves, or are dangerous, or are unable to function as everyone else can in society? When someone is diagnosed with a disease or physical illness, we do not look at that person as being less than someone else.
I wish I had the answer. It’s possible that the stigma comes from the way cancer patients or heart attack patients are portrayed in movies and television, as compared to a person with mental illness. Or, maybe it’s because physical illness is more widely understood. Maybe it’s ingrained in our heads at a young age that people living with mental illnesses are different. More now than ever, we need to be compassionate of the differences in people. We as a society must recognize the discriminatory treatment of people who are treated differently because of their appearance or their behaviors. For now, I will not get into the racial inequities in our society, which must be dealt with before they tear our communities apart. I will say though, that even within a community that does have compassion for persons with mental illness, we see similar inequalities play out. These inequities cannot be tolerated in the world of behavioral health treatment and recovery, or society in general.
Why is this so critical now more than ever?
I think we all know the answer, even if we do not want to accept it. We have built a society of instant gratification with expectations of instant response with limited resolve. For many years, society labeled the person taking drugs as just a “dope addict” and looked at someone who seems to always smell of alcohol as being too weak. Society deemed the person who dressed differently and spoke to themselves as “eccentric” or even “crazy.” Now though, people are realizing that mental illness affects so many people.
Mental health is no longer reserved for only the homeless person begging for money or the person in the park sitting on the bench having a conversation about the world food shortage with themselves. Mental illness can affect anyone; it is the everyday mom and dad, son and daughter, grandparent or neighbor who has been isolated for months and fears a return to their normalcy. It is the neighbor who served two stints overseas protecting our freedom, who comes home to a world that they can no longer relate to. It is the person who is self-treating their depression or isolation with drugs or alcohol. Maybe it is just COVID, or maybe it is the pressure of social injustice, or maybe it is the combination of many of these factors that is leading people to the realization that caring for our mental health is a fundamental part of being healthy.
It is time to turn those feelings into action, by reaching a hand out to others. When you do that extra something to make another’s life better, you may find that doing so gives you new purpose.
Whatever this month may mean to you personally, I would ask that each of us take this month to reexamine how we can make this world a better place to live for those who are suffering and recovering from mental health issues. Reach out to isolated friends who may be depressed, volunteer at food banks so those who feel the pain of food insecurity can go forward in life having hope and knowing there is support. Or, stop using language that categorizes people as less than they are, and instead offer them the same dignity you would want for yourself. For those who are suffering from COVID-related depression, isolation, and anxiety, do not be afraid to seek help. Not only should you seek out help, but you should demand it. You have a right to be treated with the same vigor and decency as someone with a broken arm, so do not accept less.
It is May, a month that always marks the freshness of spring and the hopefulness of summer, that we set aside for awareness and reflection. But this year, let’s make this month a month of true citizenship. Each of us has a responsibility to make our society a better place for all.