Each year, millions of Americans face the reality of living with a mental illness. During May, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and the rest of the country are raising awareness of mental health. I am proud to serve on the Board of Directors for NAMI Huntsville, where we fight stigma, provide support, educate the public, and advocate for policies that support people with mental illness and their families. This year, NAMI will promote the theme of “Cure Stigma.”
Let’s look at the facts from a NAMI report published in 2015:
• Approximately 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. — 43.8 million, or 18.5% — experiences mental illness in a given year.
• An estimated 26% of homeless adults staying in shelters live with serious mental illness, and an estimated 46% live with severe mental illness and/or substance use disorders.
• Approximately 20% of state prisoners and 21% of local jail prisoners have “a recent history” of a mental health condition.
• Only 41% of adults in the U.S. with a mental health condition received mental health services in the past year. Among adults with a serious mental illness, 62.9% received mental health services in the past year.
• Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S., the 3rd leading cause of death for people aged 10–14, and the 2nd leading cause of death for people aged 15–24. Each day an estimated 18-22 veterans die by suicide.
While these numbers are staggering and sobering, my hope is that we will acknowledge that without a change in public perception, mental health will remain stigmatized. Stigma is toxic to mental health because it creates an environment of shame, fear, and silence that prevents many people from seeking help and treatment. I challenge you to make changes, every day, in every possible, way to stand up to stigma. Let’s get started:
1. Talk openly about mental health. We don’t hesitate to inquire or discuss physical ailments. When you ask someone how they are doing, really listen to the answer. An answer other than “fine” is usually the opening of a door to further inquiry. Your willingness to use words like bipolar and PTSD can be contagious.
2. Educate yourself and others. Are you willing to share your own struggles with mental health? If you overhear a conversation or a rude remark being made about mental illness, you can always try to use that as a learning opportunity; gently intervene to kindly express how this affects you and only adds to the stigma.
3. Encourage equality between physical and mental illness. Most people are willing to talk about diabetes, heart disease, or cancer without fear of labeling or disapproval. Those who seek treatment for somatic symptoms are no different than those who seek help with management of psychological symptoms.
4. Show compassion. Since so many of our homeless population are also struggling with mental illness, the simple act of acknowledgment can not only make their day but also remind passersby of the humanity of those who are suffering.
5. Choose empowerment over shame. If you are struggling with mental illness, choose to lead by example by modeling an empowered life. You own your life and your story by refusing to allow others to dictate how you feel about yourself.
6. Be honest about treatment. The walls are slowly coming down for those who say that they are seeing a therapist or psychiatrist. (We don’t hesitate to acknowledge doctor’s appointments to treat physical ailments.) Often the skills you learn in therapy are transferrable to everyday life, which can be shared with those who ask.
7. Let the media know when they are being stigmatizing. If you watch a program on TV that has negative comments, story lines, or characters with a mental illness, write to the broadcasting company or to the program itself. If your Facebook feed has any stories where people make ignorant comments about mental health, you can take the opportunity to educate them.
8. Don’t harbor self-stigma. If you struggle with a mental illness, instead of hiding from this world in shame, but be a productive member of society. You can volunteer at church, spend time with friends, mentor, and become an encouraging parent. You are purpose driven and can show others it is possible to live a meaningful life even while battling mental illness.
For further information on how to “cure stigma,” check out https://www.nami.org, or to get involved locally, https://www.namihuntsville.org
Until next time….Lisa