Mental Health Awareness Week
Each month of the year is dedicated to a wide variety of causes: some familiar and some not. October is no exception. The range goes from Pastor Appreciation to National Pork Month. We also seek to Stop Bullying, Prevent Domestic Violence and Promote Cyber Security. We even dedicate the month to eating things such as cookies and ice cream. All well and good, but did you know that Mental Health Awareness Week was observed a few days ago?
When we speak of being aware of mental health, it's more than simply knowing that some people have certain problems. For example, we know full well how many people suffer from heart attack, cancer, strokes and diabetes. There are fundraising events, support groups, and television/radio commercials that get out the word that these are debilitating conditions worthy of our compassion, assistance, understanding and care. When it comes to having mental health concerns, most people are reluctant to talk in depth about the topic or share deeply about the effects that problems have had on them or their loved ones. It's as if it is a "taboo" topic, or one that is misunderstood, ignored, or sometimes ridiculed.
Part of the problem is that over time, our culture has stigmatized those who suffer from mental illness. This can add to the uncomfortable, alienating feelings sufferers endure. Stigma is a mark of disgrace that sets a person apart. When a person is labeled by their illness, they are seen as part of a stereotyped group. A snowball effect occurs in that negative attitudes create prejudice, which leads to negative actions and discrimination. Example: people with severe anxiety, depression, or certain thought disorders, are often judged, shunned, or made fun of. This typically doesn't happen to people with a heart condition, diabetes or cancer. It's like there is a "hierarchy of illnesses.”
It wouldn't take that big of a culture shift to chip away at the stigma of mental illness. Becoming more informed about the tremendous variety of mental illnesses out there would be a good first step. Suspending judgment, being more respectful, and "walking a mile in the person's shoes" would help greatly. Just having a conversation about what it must be like to live life the way a person with schizophrenia or a mood disorder does could go a long way toward a better understanding of the problem. If there were ever a case for more empathy in our society, this would be it! Realize too that there are many forms of help available through mental health centers, private therapists, and support groups (the National Alliance on Mental Illness) locally.
People with severe/persistent mental illness do not need our pity. They do need our compassion and support. Suspend the judgments, refrain from criticizing, work at being more accepting. It all helps.
Bill Kersting, Spencer