People with mental illness have many gifts to share. The history of the arts, academia and culture is indebted to people who face this challenge. These members of our families and communities are smart, creative and capable. They make a positive difference in our world, starting with the transformation of their own lives through mental health recovery.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month. It is a time when people with mental illness speak out about their persistent struggles and journeys of resilience. People with mental health challenges must face the symptoms and ramifications of their illnesses, while also facing society’s misunderstandings and stigmatization. Stereotypes wrongly devalue people with mental illness, leaving many to contend with their deep despair alone.
Mental Health Awareness Month serves to end stigma and affirm the humanity of all people through education, awareness and empowerment.
Education demystifies mental illness, ending the myth that these illnesses are caused by character flaws, while illumining the teachings of science: Mental illnesses are brain disorders with a biological etiology.
1 in 25 adults experience a severe mental health disorder, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
24 percent of youth experience a severe mental health disorder, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
There are many advocacy organizations, including the National Alliance on Mental Illness, known as NAMI, opening doors to important conversations that are vitally needed to assist people and save lives. Through education, people learn what to look for as signs of illness in themselves and others. Resources and support offered during Mental Health Awareness Month invite family members to learn more so they can connect their loved one to services, gain deeper understanding, learn to forgive and obtain the support they need as caregivers during troubling times.
Awareness reduces stigma. Understanding the prevalence of mental illness spotlights the immediacy of the issue. According to nami.org, one in 25 adults and 24 percent of youth experience a severe mental health disorder. Many communities across the U.S. have a startling paucity of services for this growing population, especially in relation to children and youth. One consequence of lack of treatment is that as many as 20 percent of people housed in jails and homeless shelters suffers from largely-untreated mental health conditions. Advocacy efforts for more funding and better access to compassionate, life-saving care are ongoing by grassroots organizations like NAMI.
Mental illness is a disease, and like other diseases, the trajectory is sometimes terminal. This is a tragic reality. While not all deaths by suicide are preventable, we must do everything we can to alter that outcome. Providing people with access to comprehensive mental health treatment, improving quality of life through community integration and activating a compassionate support system can help vulnerable people to feel accepted and loved.
People with mental health conditions need to feel a sense of connection and belonging.
Empowerment comes through mental health recovery, a lived process of wellness that often includes therapeutic treatment, medications that can be life-saving and the sharing of one’s story. The courageous step of asking for help must be modeled. A NAMI program entitled In Our Own Voice features educational presentations given by people with mental illness. Presenters are trained how to tell their story in a manner that always includes a message of hope. Peers are ambassadors of hope because they are surviving something difficult and harrowing. They use their experience of resiliency to guide others through the darkness to the light.
As a person living with a mental health condition, I find hope in the messages of education, awareness and empowerment that emerge from brave peers and advocates. During the dark nights of my illness, hope is fleeting. When I reach out for help, there is the possibility of connection and through connection comes healing. Reaching out is easier when society is not standing in the way with ignorance and judgment. Speaking out either as someone directly affected or as an advocate opens up the possibility for hope to enter into chaos and transform it.
If more of us speak up, we can end the stigma.
I invite you to learn more about mental illness and support those who are struggling. My family, friends, treatment team and faith community save my life every day.
You might help save someone’s life, too.
Marie Marchand is on the board of directors of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Whatcom County affiliate.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 800-273-8255, or text 741741 for help. Call for yourself, or for someone you know, if you are concerned about suicidal thinking or actions.