This week is Mental Health Awareness Week. You may be asking yourself “Why does mental health need an awareness week?” There are many answers to that question, but the simplest one is that 1 in 4 Americans experience mental illness in a given year 1. That is approximately 61.5 million Americans suffering, most of the time, in silence. If a quarter of the nation developed a potentially life-threatening disease every year, you would expect to hear about it on every major media outlet daily. Then why do we only hear about mental illness when a tragedy happens? If you hear the word “schizophrenic,” what are your first thoughts? Many people would say “dangerous” or “volatile;” because crime dramas on TV have painted those with schizophrenia as serial killers or tin-hat conspiracy theorists. Mental health awareness is as much about being aware of the stigma we have created as it is about being aware of mental illness.
In the year 2013, some still look down on others for seeking mental health counseling or treatment. “Needing professional help” is often used as an insult. What kind of message does that send to someone who might actually need help? One-half of all mental illness begins by age 14 and three-quarters by age 242. Mental illness, like any illness, is easier to treat the earlier it is discovered. If we continue to perpetuate the message that mental illness is something to be ashamed of and hide, we are going to continue to hear about undiagnosed or untreated mental illness in the wake of tragedies.
There are steps we can take towards building a more accepting attitude towards mental illness. The first step is to go see a mental health care professional. Your mind needs a check-up on a regular basis as much as your body does. Counselors are not only for those with mental illness, they can help you prevent illness too. It is one thing to know you should exercise if you want your body to be healthy, but how do you know if you are keeping your mental state healthy? A mental health professional can give scientifically proven advice. Another step towards acceptance is to stop painting the mentally ill as criminals. Research is proving every day that many mental illnesses are really disorders in the brain. Depression, for example, is a lack of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain. Bipolar disorder is also caused by a neurotransmitter imbalance. Many highly respected people today and throughout history have had mental illnesses. Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill and Earnest Hemingway all had well-documenteddepression3. Catherine Zeta-Jones, Demi Lovato, and Britney Spears are all incredibly successful and have bipolar disorder4.
A piece of the puzzle many patients I see in my office forget is that your brain lives in your body. So if your body is not healthy, that can affect your brain and it often results in depressive symptoms. Preventing depression and anxiety (both caused by neurotransmitter imbalances) is dependent on giving your body every nutrient it needs to make neurotransmitters. B-vitamins,exercise, and sleep are all integral parts of your body’s neurotransmitter synthesis. Reducing stress is also vital. Stress burns through your stores of neurotransmitters and hormones; leaving you foggy-headed and frustrated. Mental illness can affect anyone. Taking care of yourself and knowing that there is nothing wrong with getting help will build the foundation of good mental health.
1.National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Mental Health. (n.d.). Statistics: Any Disorder Among Adults. Retrieved March 5, 2013, fromhttp://www.nimh.nih.gov/statistics/1ANYDIS_ADULT.shtml
2.Kessler, R.C, et al. (2005). Lifetime prevalence and age-of-onset distributions of DSM-IVdisorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication. Archives of General Psychiatry, 62(6), 593-602.
3.National Alliance on Mental Illness. “People with Mental Illness Enrich Our Lives.” Nami.org. National Alliance on Mental Illness, n.d. Web. Retrieved 3 Oct. 2013. From <http://www.nami.org/Template.cfm?Section=Helpline1&template=/ContentManagement/Co ntentDisplay.cfm&ContentID=4858>. Health Magazine.
4. “Bipolar Celebrities.” Bipolar Celebrities – Health.com, n.d. Retrieved Web. 03 Oct. 2013. From <http://www.health.com/health/gallery/0,,20307117_last,00.html>.