Mental Illness Awareness Week is October 4 – 10. This week was established in 1990 by the U.S. Congress to draw attention to the work of a variety of private and public organizations who educate people and create awareness of mental illness. This year’s theme is “What People with Mental Illness Want You to Know.” I’d like to piggyback on that theme to tell you what I as a mental health professional want you to know.
We Should Talk About Mental Health
First, I want you to know this is a topic that we need to normalize by talking about it. By talking about it as many different conditions – not one singular illness. By recognizing that some illnesses are biologically based. By understanding that in various ways they can affect our thinking, feelings, mood, and behavior. In general, talking about it much as we do in discussing physical health conditions. By doing, do we help confront the social stigma and stereotypes? Stigma and stereotyping delay those with illness and their families from seeking help.
Mental Health Disorders Are Not Uncommon
Second, I want you to know how prevalent mental health disorders are in the U.S., even before the coronavirus pandemic with its enormous emotional toll. A recent Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) report confirmed the growing evidence that the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic recession are having an unprecedented negative impact on Americans’ mental health, with unpredictable consequences. The KFF tracking poll found that 53% of adults in the U.S. reported that their mental health status had worsened due to worry and stress associated with the ongoing pandemic and economic damage. For many years prior to 2020, studies have shown that about one in five Americans experiences a mental health condition of some type, and one in 25 U.S. adults experience a serious mental illness each year. Many more family members are affected as well.
You may have heard these facts, but you might not be aware that mental illness is an issue for children and young people. One in six children aged 17 and under experience a mental health disorder each year. Fully 50% of all lifetime mental illnesses begin by age 14. Yet many school systems are poorly resourced and equipped to provide early screening and referral for children and teens.
Causes of Mental Illnesses
Third, I also want you to know this about the causes of mental illnesses. Just like physical illnesses, there are multiple causes of mental disorders and they affect all classes, all groups, all zip codes, all red states, and all blue states. A person’s genetics, their early living environment, family circumstances, their social conditions like poverty or discrimination, and many other factors play a role in development of a mental illness. A stressful job, or an unloving family life may also create risk. Experiencing traumatic events like child abuse or neglect, intimate partner abuse, trauma in war, daily microaggressions related to gender, race or ethnicity, or brain injuries also put people at risk. But in short, no one, no family, no society is immune.
Treatment for Behavioral Health Disorders
Finally, I’d like you to know some uplifting news. Treatment for behavioral health disorders has never been more effective than it is today. New pharmaceuticals and evidence-based talk therapies are making their impact. Social stigma around the issue is diminishing, especially among younger people. Access channels like Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) are common and Student Assistance Programs (SAP) are gaining traction. Both are prevention, education and early case finding and advocacy resources. Speaking of EAPs and SAPs, October is a good time to visit with your programs. Understand what they are doing to provide an easily accessible channel to help those in need to get started on a path to treatment. And while you are at it, ask about what they can do to help you educate and build resiliency in the other 80% who will not experience a mental health condition this year, but who are experiencing all the unusual stressors that have come with 2020.
One last thought. A great way for you personally or for your work organization to get involved in advocacy for people with mental illness and their families is to visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness at www.nami.org.
About the Author
Norman Winegar, LCSW, CEAP, NCAC II is the Chief Clinical Officer at Espyr. For over 30 years, Norman has practiced in mental health, substance misuse, and EAP settings. He has also worked in leadership positions in both public and private sector behavioral health organizations. An author of four books, he is frequently called on for presentations and as a panelist to share his expertise and experience as a mental health professional.
National Alliance for Mental Illness
The Implications of COVID-19 for Mental Health and Substance Abuse
Kaiser Family Foundation
Nirmita Panchal, et al
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Mental Health, Substance Use, and Suicidal Ideation During the COVID-19 Pandemic — United States, June 24–30, 2020
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