May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Also referred to as “Mental Health Month,” it has been observed in the United States since 1949. It was established as an effort to reach out to and educate millions of people through various means, including media and local events.
We live in an age where it is not uncommon for there to be an Awareness Month or even an Awareness or National Day or Week for any number of issues, causes, or conditions. Some are for seemingly obscure reasons or issues that are of importance to a limited portion of the population. You might see reminders of National Car Care Awareness Month for example, or World Vegan Month. Word has it (perhaps tongue in cheek?) that December is actually Awareness Month of Awareness Months Month!
However, if we stop to consider how utterly different the world we live in was back in 1949, we can begin to understand how important Mental Health Awareness was. We can see how determining that a month be designated as a time for outreach was vitally important in shedding light on mental health issues and mental illness.
Mental Health Month
Developed by The Mental Health America Organization, Mental Health Awareness Month was and is a way to help to spread the word that mental health is something everyone should care about. In the 1950s, America was in its infancy, if you will, as far as de-stigmatizing mental illness. Not too long beforehand, those considered mentally ill were institutionalized and in many cases subjected to drastic medical procedures in an effort to treat or cure the illness. Those not considered to be mentally healthy were often feared and misunderstood.
It was commonplace for them to be seen as violent, people who were unable to conform to the rules and norms of society at large. Treatments like lobotomies (a surgical procedure where neural passages from the front of the brain were separated from those in the back of the brain) and electro-convulsive shock therapy were routinely used. These same barbaric approaches were used to treat illnesses as benign as depression and anxiety, as well as psychosis or far more serious mental illnesses.
Mental Health Month came about just as there began to be a shift in the perception of those in need of mental health care. The fifties were the early days of de-institutionalizing those with mental illness. It was also when medications like anti-depressants came to be used in the treatment of mental disorder and disease, instead of life-altering surgical procedures. So we can see, then, that having a month set aside to concentrate on educating the public in areas of mental health was vitally important.
It is still very important.
Today’s Day and Age
One is left to imagine how well such information was received, how much impact it had in those earliest days, and how far-reaching and permanent the consequences were. Although treatment has come quite a long way, society’s view of the mentally ill has not.
For years the Mental Health America Organization has developed themes each May to highlight various aspects of the broader topic of mental health. Themes such as 2008’s “Get Connected” sought to underscore the importance of social connectedness in one’s overall well-being, particularly in times of personal stress. More recently, last year’s “Mental Illness Feels Like…” utilized social media as an aid to encourage mentally ill people to share what they are feeling. It’s quite beneficial to discuss stressors or traumatic events they have experienced. It tends to help others suffering from mental illness to recognize in themselves symptoms of mental illness, ways to cope, and even risk factors to substance abuse.
There appears to be a high correlation between drug and/or alcohol abuse and mental illness or disorder. This is not to say that one is a direct cause of the other; however, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) maintains that drug use can be a means of self-medicating for people suffering from mental illness.
The National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) also points out that some drugs can trigger or create mental health symptoms like paranoia, depression or even delusions. Another unfortunate fact is that people who are dealing with a drug/alcohol addiction or a mental illness (or who have a dual diagnosis) fall into the category of individuals least likely to seek help with these issues. This leads one to believe that even given as far as we have come as a society, there is still a pressing need for the insight and education that having a Mental Health Awareness Month can afford us.
Even though we don’t necessarily seek to institutionalize or surgically alter a person with mental health issues, we still have far to go before one’s mental health or lack thereof is given the same respect and consideration that a person’s physical well-being is afforded.
Mental Health Defined
So what is mental health? Surely it involves more than just the absence of a diagnosed mental illness! Dictionary.com defines it as “psychological well-being and satisfactory adjustment to society and to the ordinary demands of life,” as well as “the field of medicine concerned with the maintenance or achievement of such well-being and adjustment”. The World Health Organization defines it as “a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.
Given these similar but verbally diverse definitions, one has to wonder why there remains such a stigma regarding mental illness or disorder. How many of us can say confidently and consistently that we are in a good state of mental health? How many of us are even comfortable in discussing issues surrounding our mental health, surrounding our ability to cope with daily stressors, setbacks, trials & tribulations, much less serious trauma or hardship?
Removing the Stigma
How many of us can say we have never questioned our ability to contribute to our community? How many of us have not questioned our worth, our inherent value when faced with so many of life’s demands and setbacks? How many among us can say that we have never sought to “solve” a problem with a glass of wine or some beers with friends?
Is it not easier to see, if not to identify with, a person who seeks such self-medication only to find out they are NOT in control? That they are in fact addicted? That they can no longer function without the crutch of a drink or a drug?
Isn’t it time that shame was taken out of the equation?
Perhaps that is one of the many goals of Mental Health Awareness Month. Let’s take this topic out into the open where it belongs, where it can be seen, discussed, understood. No one would cower in shame if they were diagnosed with a setback to their physical health. Sometimes even those challenges, physical health problems, have roots in voluntary behaviors. Sometimes a physical health issue will arise directly or indirectly as a result of life choices and decisions we have made.
Why then is mental health so often viewed through a different lens?
Mental Health Awareness Month is a valuable tool in at least opening a dialogue that can have broad repercussions for those people who also find themselves dependent on drugs and/ or alcohol. It is an opportunity to reach out and say “you are not alone” and “I know how you feel”.
Mental Health America also offers mental health screening which can, through a series of tests a person can take independently, help one to identify or recognize that they are experiencing symptoms of a mental health condition. These can include tests for depression, anxiety, PTSD, psychosis, or alcohol/substance abuse. These screenings can help at-risk populations to identify problems and seek help before the mental health condition severely impacts their lives. Once identified, these mental health conditions can be treated and recovery is possible.
This year Mental Health America chose “Risky Business” as its theme for May’s Mental Health Awareness. It is an effort to make people aware of habits and behaviors that can put them at risk for either developing a mental illness or for making an existing mental health issue worse. Also, quite significantly, this month seeks to make people aware that sometimes a risky behavior one is engaged in can actually be a sign or symptom in itself of an underlying mental health issue they are already suffering from – perhaps without even being aware of it.
One would hope this would be the type of outreach that may reach the youngest of the “at risk” population: college age kids, teenagers, even kids at the elementary school level. If we consider the self-medicating theory set forth by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and the very definition of mental health noted previously, then our children seem particularly vulnerable. There is the need to belong and to fit in, coupled with the increased prevalence of bullying which has been taken to an all new level with social media and its power to influence young minds. No longer is a child just made to feel worthless or outcast on a playground or school campus; now their humiliation is on the internet for all to see and hear about.
Bullying has the power to shape kids’ realities. And then there is the impact that celebrity and mainstream media can have on how mental health is viewed as well as how substance use and abuse is viewed. Both mental illness and substance abuse are not realistically portrayed in the media. Mental illness still has a tendency to be depicted in a stereotypical way, and substance abuse is often treated less as the disease that it is than as a matter of personal choice and even privilege. Once again, the afflicted, or the user, is portrayed as being somehow responsible for that which is not theirs to control.
No doubt we as a society, and the mental health and medical professions, have come a long, long way since the seemingly ancient days when those suffering from mental illness or alcoholism were thought to be possessed by evil spirits and were housed in asylums which were little more than prisons. Locked away from society and any semblance of beneficial treatment. But there can be little doubt either that we have much room for continued improvement in the understanding of and care for those who suffer from mental health and substance abuse issues.
Remembering Mental Health Awareness during the month of May, year after year, continues to bring this most worthy of issues to light. Mental Health Month brings greater and more open dialog to a much misunderstood topic which seems only to become more important as the years and decades pass.