May is National Mental Health Awareness Month. Whether you realize it or not, you know someone who struggles with mental health. Statistically speaking, 1 in 5 five people fall into this category(1). Statistics also state that 1 in 3 people suffer from heart disease (2). If you were one of these people with heart disease (or one of your loved ones), chances are that you wouldn’t hesitate from reaching out for help or posting something like this to your Facebook/twitter feed, “Send positive thoughts, my Dad had to go to the ER for angina (chest pains).” Or if you needed to change your medications to lower your blood pressure, you wouldn’t think twice about telling your boss the reason for the doctor’s visit, or tell your coworkers the purpose of those pills you take during lunch break.
Same goes for diabetes. Diabetes affects 29 million people in the US; that’s 1 in 11 people(3). It develops either through the failure of the pancreas to make enough insulin, or the body not using insulin properly. Either way, diabetes is managed through medications, educational counseling, nutrition, exercise, community support and close monitoring by a medical professional.
Diabetes and heart disease are caused by a combination of biological and environmental factors. It all starts with genetics, by environmental stress, including nutrition, can compound any underlying biology. Neither one of these illness can necessarily be “cured.” One doesn’t simply, “snap out of” a diabetic trance or lower their blood pressure by “taking a deep breath.” These facts are accepted and understood.
Yet, when it comes to mental illness, stigma and misunderstanding still seem to rule the day. Depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, PTSD, schizophrenia, to name a few, are caused by (more or less) a malfunction of neurotransmitter chemicals within brain circuits and sympathetic nervous system. Like the other two diseases, mental illnesses are also compounded by biological, psychological, and environmental factors. Some mental illnesses have been linked to abnormal functioning of nerve cell circuits or pathways that connect particular brain regions. Others are caused injury to certain parts of the brain.
Just like the other diseases, mental illnesses can be managed through medications, nutrition, exercise, community support and close monitoring by a medical professional.
Yet, you probably won’t see someone post, “my anxiety is running high, I need to adjust my medication,” or “Send positive thoughts, my Dad went to the ER because he hasn’t slept in three days.” A person who lives with a mental illness is less likely to notify their employer out of fear of losing their job. Instead of saying, “I’m seeing my doctor to adjust my bipolar medications,” they are more like to give an excuse. Instead of reaching out to friends when anxiety gets too overwhelming, the are more likely to disappear, to delete their Facebook or twitter account for a while.
Why? Why is it that we can accept that someone with diabetes has a MEDICAL condition that needs treatment with daily medication, but someone who is depressed needs to “just snap out it.” Where is the fear to reach out to our bosses and friends coming from? Why isn’t it a part of the normal dialogue? And why won’t insurance pay at the same rate for mental health treatment as diabetes or high blood management?
A big part of the collective fear and disparity comes from the media. Historically, mental illnesses have been misunderstood and therefore portrayed in a negative light in films and TV. Also, whenever a violent crime with mass casualties is committed, often the first action is to rationalize the actions with, “did the person suffer from a mental illness?” Statistically, a person with heart disease is more likely to commit such an offense, but no one reports that person who shot up a school was suffering from high cholesterol. Also, people with a mental illness are more likely to be the VICTIM of a crime rather than the perpetrator. There is also the myth/misunderstanding that someone with a mental illness is somehow less mentally capable of completing tasks (not true!).
So, May is national mental health awareness. What can YOU do? Be aware of the myths and stigmas surrounding mental illness, and REJECT them. EMBRACE the current scientific research that demonstrates the need for community support and a PART of that community. SHARE this information to promote awareness. REACH out to your friends and family and let them know that mental illness is NOT something to be ashamed of, but instead, taken seriously and managed through love and support. UNDERSTAND, that a person with mental illness is a PERSON first, who has an illness second (just like a someone with heart disease is a PERSON with a malfunctioning cardiac system). And if you suffer silently, paralyzed by that collective fear, don’t. SPEAK up, don’t be afraid to tell your inner circle. More than likely someone in that inner circle also shares this fear. WRITE to your congressman today and demand federal parity for mental healthcare. Tell them to support the Mental Health Reform Act of 2016. It is unacceptable that people are turned away or don’t receive treatment due to the lack of access.
It is only through these actions that mental illness can be normalized and treated as the medical disease it is. Let’s, “snap out of,” this cycle of ignorance and fear, and promote a better understanding and acceptance.
-K.M.Clark, a person who conquers symptoms of bipolar disorder (most) every day.