May is Mental Health Awareness Month and a time for us to prioritize our physical and psychological well-being. Together we can address the stigma associated with mental health and substance use disorders and learn how to take better care of ourselves and each other. Throughout this month, Huntsman Mental Health Institute at the University of Utah (HMHI) will be helping raise awareness about a variety of issues related to mental health and mental health and substance use disorder stigma.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), adults with anxiety or depressive disorder symptoms rose from 36 to 42 percent between August 2020 and February 2021. The National Alliance on Mental Illness reported that 1 in 5 adults in the US experienced a mental illness, while 1 in 20 experienced or dealt with a serious mental illness during 2020. Even as more individuals experience mental health and substance use disorder challenges, the vast majority don't seek help because of the stigma.
"Mental health and mental illness impact nearly every family, yet stigma still causes so much shame, fear, doubt, isolation and misunderstanding," says Dave Eldredge, HMHI. "The shame caused by stigma keeps people from seeking treatment so richly needed and deserved."
Dave Eldredge, MSW, LCSW, Senior Director of Clinical Operations at HMHI
Societal stigma and self-imposed, internalized stigma are, unfortunately, quite common and are incredibly dangerous. When we treat mental health and substance use disorders as choices that can be controlled rather than as medical conditions that can be managed and treated, we isolate those suffering and create an atmosphere of blame and shame.
The ambient feeling of guilt around mental health issues can cause those suffering to avoid seeking professional help or even seeking comfort and understanding from their peers and loved ones. Shame or guilt around depression or any other mental health condition is as outdated as thinking you are weak or flawed for needing to wear glasses.
Unlike other physical illnesses, mental illnesses start in the brain. The brain is the least understood organ in our bodies, but just like any other organ, our brain experiences changes, healing, and injury based on life experiences. Mental illnesses can impact the rest of your body. Poor brain health can cause headaches, stomach aches, insomnia, and lead to more serious physical health issues. A healthy mind is an inherent part of a healthy body. We must move past the existing stigma and see physical and mental health equally.
Eldredge suggests ways to shift your thinking about mental health and work to combat stigma:
- Find help. If you have a painful toothache, you don't try to "tough it out," so why would you do that with your psychological health? Don't let the fear of being labeled with a mental illness prevent you from seeking help. Finding help through treatment and counseling can be incredibly important. Mental illnesses may be more complex, but they can be treated just like diabetes or high blood pressure.
- Do not let stigma and shame drive you. While stigma can come from others, it very often comes from ourselves as well. It's not a sign of weakness to acknowledge a mental health condition you may be facing. In fact, it's a sign of strength.
- Spend time with friends and loved ones. If you have a mental health concern, you may be reluctant to tell others about it. Being honest and open with those you care about can be one of the best ways to make sure you do not have to suffer alone. Talking openly about your mental health may also inspire others to seek help.
- Speak out against stigma. When the option presents itself, speak out against mental health stigma when you see it. Politely remind others that treatment for a mental health condition is just as important as getting treatment for a physical health condition.
As we celebrate Mental Health Awareness Month this May, we must remember that mental health is simply an aspect of one's overall physical health. Let's continue to help each other by talking openly and honestly about mental health and doing everything we can to normalize mental health and eliminate stigma.
"Until we start to view mental illness as an illness that impacts your brain the same way we view an illness that affects your heart or your kidneys, we'll continue to face the devastating consequences caused by stigma," Eldredge says.