Why mental health deserves your attention
Every year, medical conditions such a cancer and supposedly eradicated diseases dominate heath related headlines. Rightfully so! Cancer was the second leading cause of death in the US in 2016, behind only heart disease. The likelihood of being diagnosed with cancer is around 35-40%, dependent on your sex. It’s honestly kind of terrifying. The good news is, thanks to increased awareness and endless research, cancer’s death rate has fallen about 27% since 1991, according to cancer.org. My point is, big changes can come when we focus our attention where it’s needed.
In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, I hereby embark upon my personal mission to bring the same kind of change to your perception of mental illness. Now is the time to be having this discussion. This is a growing issue, and our attitudes toward mental health lag far behind.
Let’s talk first about the prevalence of mental illness. Around 18% of adults in the US experience some form of mental illness, while about 10 million adults, per year, experience symptoms severe enough to significantly interfere with their daily functioning. In children, mental health issues are even more common (around 21%). These are just the annual statistics.
Mental illness is a contributing factor in homelessness, substance abuse, criminality (especially in the juvenile justice system), gun violence, chronic medical conditions, etc. Despite the commonality and the implications, only about half of the people who experience these problems will receive treatment. Half of your friends with mental illnesses. Half of the children. That percentage is even smaller for minorities!
Access to services such as therapy and medication are, of course, significant barriers. Even those who are able to receive help may give up before even beginning, as I nearly did just a few weeks ago. There’s a time commitment, which is off-putting to many. There are, in many locations, few options for treatment. It’s also very fucking expensive without the right insurance.
Now, let’s discuss the stigma surrounding mental health. If you’re reading this, I’ll assume you’re an ally. The same cannot be said about many of the people that surround us. Our natural inclination is to back away from people who behave differently. We call them weird, or crazy, or often much worse. In my experience with emergency services, people often rolled their eyes when we were dispatched to “mental patients.” The very people who we expect to be there at any time, they don’t see that calling for help is an actual call for help. Because we’ve been there 3 times this month, it can’t be that serious!
This attitude is so unbelievably pervasive. I can’t understand how this can be so often overlooked. Your brain is your most important organ, and we don’t seem to care when it isn’t functioning as intended. We either look the other way, or we make light of it. Scroll through Facebook and count the number of jokes about anxiety or depression or alcoholism. Even the people with the problems can’t take this stuff seriously.
I encourage everyone to take some time to learn something about mental illness. As dramatic as this may seem, you could save somebody’s life. Perhaps you didn’t know that suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the US, the rate being 13.4% in 2016. Perhaps you didn’t know that suicide rates have risen by 30% in some states, or that there is a suicide attempt, on average, every 28 seconds (this is an estimate, many attempts are never reported). For people between 10 and 34, suicide is the second leading cause of death. They’re taking their own lives because they’re sick. Think of your friends, your family, your students, your coworkers. Somebody somewhere needs you to understand.
If you don’t see now, mental health is an issue that needs to be talked about. It needs exposure. It needs interest. And the people who are dealing with it need support. Over the course of this month, I will continue telling my story while also imparting valuable knowledge about mental health. Change starts small.