According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one in five adults and one in six youth in America experience mental illness each year. It has become commonplace in today’s news cycles to hear about tragedies that can be at least in part attributed to a mental health crisis in this country. It also is common to hear about the stigma surrounding mental illness. So how do we collectively break through that stigma and support individuals and communities experiencing mental health concerns?
When it comes to physical health, there is a common understanding that exercising, eating healthy, and keeping up with regular doctor visits can help maintain positive health. However, symptoms, illnesses, and diseases are also comfortably part of the conversation. So while we know that a healthy diet is always important, we also acknowledge that much more than that is needed to help someone suffering from anything from a sore throat to cancer. A support system is embedded in our collective consciousness when it comes to doing things necessary to address issues when something goes wrong.
When it comes to mental health, we are generally comfortable discussing concepts like self-care and mindfulness that can help maintain positive health. We are comfortable, if not self-righteous, to look back and reflect and be appalled as we question what went wrong when our system fails and a tragedy occurs. But what about everything in between? This would be similar to promoting the benefits of exercising while ignoring symptoms like high blood pressure and obesity, and being shocked at continually increasing rates of heart disease.
We aren’t yet comfortable, and certainly not collectively willing, to have the necessary and often difficult conversations around people struggling with mental health issues. Too often we leave the true realities of living with mental illness out of the conversation entirely. Symptoms like intense fear or worry, extreme mood changes, withdrawal, avoidance, changes in energy or sleeping habits, or self-harming. Conditions like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression, posttraumatic stress disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and eating disorders. The list goes on. Practicing self-care is always important but more must be done, and therefore talked about openly, for those experiencing mental illness.
Unfortunately, throughout history, people with mental illness have been branded, ostracized, and even locked away. As a result, still today many people irrationally and inaccurately assume that experiencing mental illness equates to being unreliable and unstable. This stigma leads to a reluctance to seek help, a lack of understanding and compassion, and numerous challenges for those facing both the internal and external pressures that mental illness brings.
But just like physical ailments are not moral indicators, nor are mental health concerns. There is no single cause of mental illness, whether biological or circumstantial. Mental illness is not an ethical failure any more than is physical illness. Equally as important, just as talking openly about physical illness allows individuals to feel secure in seeking treatment, we must collectively make an effort to broaden the dialogue around mental illness. That begins with each and every one of us making the conscious decision and effort to listen, learn and refrain from judging.
Of the nearly 60 million Americans experiencing mental illness, less than half receive treatment. These individuals experiencing challenges may be family members, friends, colleagues, kids and maybe even you. To create a system where each individual is allowed and encouraged to feel safe and comfortable seeking help, it will take all of us committing to break the stigma and join the raw and honest dialogue.
Bryan Busch is a licensed mental health counselor in Cedar Rapids. He also helps lead the Iowa Ideas Conference, Leadership Development Program, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee and digital strategy at Folience, the parent company of The Gazette.