Dear Decaturish – It’s time to end the stigma surrounding mental illness
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May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Mental health is part of overall health. It is important to learn early symptoms of mental illness and seek help when it is needed. Everyone needs to know symptoms of mental illness. One invaluable resource is the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) an organization that offers information through its website www.nami.org and HelpLine: 1-800-950-NAMI (6264). NAMI is the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization dedicated to building better lives for the millions of Americans affected by mental illness.
The consequences of lack of knowledge and action related to mental health are devastating. One in four adults experience mental health problems any given year. One in 17 adults lives with conditions such as major depression, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. Suicide, usually a result of mental illness, is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States and the 2nd leading cause of death for people aged 15–24.
One-half of all chronic mental illness begins by the age of 14 and three-quarters by age 24. The economic cost to our economy is in the hundreds of billions. Unfortunately, too often long delays, sometimes decades, pass between the time symptoms first appear and when people get treatment.
The stigma of mental illness is often what keeps people from seeking the help they need. I kept my depression a secret most of my life and sought treatment only when life was so difficult I became suicidal. My experience is that people are very uncomfortable talking about mental health conditions or that they believe that the person with a mental illness is weak and could be okay if they tried hard enough. No one would make those assumptions about a person with a broken leg, cancer or a heart condition. Mental illness is not tangible like some other diseases nor is there a test that definitively diagnoses the condition. The difficulty lies in the brain, the source of mental illness, and knowledge about the brain is still in its infancy. Many promising therapies exist. For example, deep brain stimulation (electrodes that constantly stimulate an area of the brain) was what stabilized my depression and made life worth living.
Peer support is foundational to mental health recovery. NAMI provides that with support groups and educational programs led by trained facilitators who have a mental illness. Using a model developed by experts in the field (and that group included people with mental illness, the true experts), we are able to discuss topics and experiences that seldom felt comfortable before. The empathy and understanding create constructive communication and a path to recovery. Recovery is possible and the path to recovery may be different for each person. People cannot even get on the path, though, when they know little about mental illness, when they believe people will discriminate against them, when friends and family tell them they need to “buck up” and when few resources are put into research and development.
A person’s mental illness affects their families and friends. NAMI provides peer led support and educational groups for them. A support system is crucial to recovery. The NAMI groups and classes give families and friends support and help them to understand mental illness. Families, friends, the community and people with mental illness need to be strong advocates who help shape policy and create awareness.
Co-president NAMI DeKalb