May is National Mental Health Awareness Month

I have worked in the Mental Health and Addictions field for close to 20 years. During that time I have had the opportunity to write several articles on reducing the stigma of mental health, as well as articles supporting others to seek out help and guidance. Those who struggle with issues such as stress, anxiety, and depression, are not alone. The month of May is very important to me as it marks a time where our Nation strives to increase awareness and decrease the stigma associated with mental illness. For more than 60 years, organizations and agencies have provided individuals and communities with the opportunity to learn about mental health issues and raise awareness to the hidden illnesses that affect millions of people.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), it is estimated in 2010 that close to 45.9 million adults aged 18 or older in the United States had a mental illness in the past year. This represents 20 percent of all adults in this country (SAMHSA, NSDUH 2012). The mission of national agencies is to transform the understanding and treatment of mental illnesses through research, paving the way for prevention, recovery, and cure. These national agencies set a good precedent for communities on a more local level, to communicate and build on the research and data they have gathered. What is mental illness you may ask.

According to the national Institute on Mental Illness (NAMI), a mental illness is a medical condition that disrupts a person’s thinking, feeling, mood, ability to relate to others and daily functioning. Just as diabetes is a disorder of the pancreas, mental illnesses are medical conditions that often result in a diminished capacity for coping with the ordinary demands of life.

Serious mental illnesses include major depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), panic disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and borderline personality disorder. The good news about mental illness is that recovery is possible.

Mental illnesses can affect persons of any age, race, religion or income. Mental illnesses are not the result of personal weakness, lack of character or poor upbringing. Mental illnesses are treatable. Most people diagnosed with a serious mental illness can experience relief from their symptoms by actively participating in an individual treatment plan. (www.nami.org)

In 1949, Mental Health America launched Mental Health Week which eventually became May is Mental Health Month. Each May, Americans recognize it with events and activities in communities across the country. The theme for Mental Health Month this year is “Get Connected” to emphasize the important role of social relationships in protecting and improving mental health and building resiliency.

There are now designated times in May for groups to raise awareness and advocate for improvements in research, prevention and treatment on specific mental health issues. The first week in May, for example, has been designated as Children’s Mental Health Week. But the specific times are not as important as educating about all mental illnesses any time of the year.

There are many websites that offer free downloadable materials or pamphlets on mental illness. Isn’t it time we all understand the illness of the brain as much as we understand and respect other physical ailments? It’s truly time to see people in a holistic approach and not segregate certain illnesses. The brain is a physical organ yet is often treated in a stigmatized way by those who do not understand its functioning.

In May, and every other month for that matter, let’s learn about the brain and reach out to those who suffer from issues related to cognitive functioning. Prevention, awareness, support, and understanding are really the only ways to gain acceptance and to learn what our friends and neighbors are struggling with. I envision a time where people disclose having depression just as they would telling a friend they broke a bone, or have Diabetes. Why should people continue to hide?

Michelle Williams, LCSW, is the executive director of Family Services of Warren County. Warren Gives returns on May 14 and Family Services hopes you will consider making a contribution towards its charitable work.