More than 43 million adults in America and one in 25 young people suffer from a mental health disorder every year. The challenges they face range from relatively common, though still disruptive, issues such as depression and anxiety to severe and often debilitating conditions such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and major depression.
The costs of mental health issues are staggering, accounting for approximately $193 billion in lost earnings every year, much of those losses due to hospitalizations and an inability to participate in meaningful work regularly.
But the toll is far from just monetary. Untreated mental health issues compromise our quality – and length – of life. Depression routinely contributes to major disabilities and makes other illness more likely. The majority of suicides in the nation (90%) involve an underlying mental health condition. Despite the fact that treatment has been shown to bring about substantial, long-term benefits, about 60% of persons struggling never receive the help they need.
The issue is particularly relevant as it relates to addiction – and recovery. As studies have indicated since the 1970s and 80s, mental health and substance use disorders often co-occur, with the symptoms and causes of one often substantially masking or complicating that of the other. Many times, the conditions are so entangled that it takes some time, commitment, and professional help to discern how they relate and can best be addressed.
But engaging in the treatment process is essential. About 10.2 million people have co-occurring mental health and addiction issues, and since there is often a strong tendency to self-medicate to relieve uncomfortable feelings, mental and emotional pain, or severe mood imbalances, what may begin as a relatively natural impulse to alleviate trauma or suffering may end up leading to years of substance abuse and a challenging road to recovery.
As Dr. James Garbutt, professor of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina has noted, “Mental illness and alcoholism or drug abuse interact in a complex dance. Mental illnesses can increase the risk for alcoholism or drug abuse, sometimes because of self-medicating. On the other hand, alcoholism can lead to significant anxiety and depression that may appear indistinguishable from a mental illness.”
Since 1949, Mental Health America (MHA) has helped lead the observance of May as National Mental Health Month to better educate citizens and communities about mental health issues and their impact, while advocating for improved diagnosis and treatment.
This year, they are calling on individuals to share what life with a mental illness feels like by posting personal stories, reflections, and videos to social media at #mentalillnessfeelslike, and urging people who think they show signs or symptoms of a mental illness to take a screen at www.mhascreening.org. MHA also offers a range of helpful resources, such as infographics, web badges, and toolkits to help organizations conduct outreach and increase engagement.
There are other ways to participate in the observance and show your support. Always a leading voice in the fight against mental health challenges, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) is sponsoring a complimentary campaign this month that focuses on breaking down the stigma that keeps many who struggle from finding and accessing proper care.
At a minimum, everyone with an interest in supporting improved mental health education and outcomes is encouraged to share relevant information, images, and graphics at #StigmaFree or #MentalHealthMonth – and they have even provided some sample social media messages and downloadable logos for those who want to quickly express their support but may be lacking “of-the-moment” inspiration!
An impressive and wide-ranging array of digital tools and resources make it easy to learn more and become an advocate. But most importantly, NAMI asks us to make a difference by taking a “stigma free” pledge to: educate ourselves and others, see the person and not the illness, and take action on the issue.
One of the core values of our society and one of the most important principles of recovery is that we should help one another. And whether it affects our family members, friends, or co-workers, we do a great service when we reach out and help those struggling with mental health issues.
During May, we should renew our commitment to reduce the stigma associated with mental illness, encourage those living with mental health issues to get the help they need, and bolster efforts to ensure that those who need special care have access to the support, resources, and acceptance they deserve. If we can do that, we can all be part of the solution and a brighter tomorrow.