What is it and How YOU can help!
May is a month full of meaningful things for me. It is Mother’s day, which means my kids remember to be nice to me. (Kidding. They are really good kids.) My anniversary is also something I look forward to each May. We got married around Memorial Day, which usually gives us a long weekend to celebrate. But a very important event in May is Mental Health Awareness.
We all talk about awareness of this and awareness of that. What does that actually mean? Is just talking about it or having it marked on a calendar enough? Mental Health Awareness is educating the public about mental illnesses such as anxiety, depression, bipolar, schizoprehia, etc.
What is the reality of a mental illness?
It’s easy to look up a list of mental illnesses and their symptoms. You can be knowledgeable, but do you really understand? Mental illness does not just affect the individual. Anyone that loves and cares about a person with mental illness is affected. A mental illness is a disruption to a person’s life, which can in turn disrupt normal, every day functioning. Perhaps your have noticed these things. You may have seen someone get very upset over something trivial or resist new or unfamiliar situations. These could be symptoms of an anxiety disorder. You might have experienced someone who “zones” out. This could be a person fighting a delusion.
It’s important to know that no one wants these illnesses or the symptoms that come with them. Many work very hard to hide those symptoms in order to appear “normal”. This can be exhausting both mentally and physically. You might even be surprised to learn that your happy, out going friend actually struggles with depression.
I own a child care center, which means I interact with a wide variety of people and families. We often see symptoms of mental illness in children . One of the hardest part of a teacher is talking to a parent about the possibility of something not right with their child. Along with stigmas, people look for blame. Does this mean they are a bad parent? Is it hereditary and they “gave” it to their child? Maybe they will just outgrow it. Early intervention in mental health in a HUGE factor for helping an individual with a diagnosis.
Acceptance, not shame
People hide mental illness for a variety of reasons. The main one is the stigma around mental health issues. Lack of education allows stigmas to continue to grow and be prevalent in our society. We are quick to support those struggling with things such as cancer or diabetes. Mental illnesses are physical illnesses in the brain. When someone has a cancer diagnosis, while we cannot see it, we accept it. We rally around that person and support them. We wear ribbons of varying colors to show our support. There are races and fundraisers. If that same person had a diagnosis of bipolar, would they receive that same reaction? Most likely not.
I have read many posts on FaceBook over the years of people announcing their cancer diagnosis. They will document their journey, post quotes about being a fighter and celebrate each victory. When a person is diagnosed with a mental illness, they are unlikely to post it on FaceBook. They will search for support groups, but before joining, check that the group is private, so their friends don’t see. They will research how to hide their symptoms.
Only acceptance and education will get rid of the stigmas surrounding a mental illness diagnosis. This means being open minded and supportive. It means being willing to accept things you might not quite understand. It’s being willing to learn what the signs and symptoms are and how to help.
To better understand the prevalence of mental illnesses, here are some statistics (cause every one loves numbers!):
- Anxiety is the most common diagnosis in adults. 18% of adults will be diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Panic Disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder or other phobias.
- 10% of adults will experience a mood disorder such as depression or bipolar.
- Children between the ages of 3 and 17 can be diagnosed with a mental illness. 9.4% of children have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Behavior and conduct disorders affect 7.4% of children while 7.1% have anxiety disorders.
- You may be surprised that 3.2% of children will be diagnosed with depression.
These numbers are only those who have been diagnosed and reported. We need to remember that with stigmas, not everyone is seeking help or may have barriers to receiving help. These numbers are most likely much higher.
How and Where to get help and support
Now that you are AWARE of mental illness, what can you do? You can be an advocate for those with mental illness. If you struggle with your own diagnosis, be open about it. You don’t have to share too much information. Share what you are comfortable with. I have Generalized Anxiety Disorder This can mean that I get worked up over something others would see as nothing big. Some may call me high strung or a worry wart. But it goes much deeper than that. Anxiety can literally cause you to be frozen in place. There are times I feel as though I cannot move until I work out the problem in my head. Anxiety causes me to catastrophize things. If it is something I do not know the outcome of I can make up worst case scenarios. I’ve learned to decatastrophize things in order to calm my fears.
Looking over your friends list, armed with your new awareness, you may notice these personality quirks that could be more. Don’t be a diagnosis vigilante! Just because someone is stressed or worried isn’t an automatic anxiety diagnosis. Someone with mood swings isn’t necessarily bipolar. As an advocate, your job isn’t to suggest diagnosis, it’s to listen. It’s to be supportive, aware and encouraging. If someone comes to you just listen. Share resources with them if you can. Let them know you are always there.
Some great resources are: