May is Mental Health Awareness Month. It’s also National Walking Month and Zombie Awareness Month and Foster Care Awareness Month, but why do we even have “awareness” months? What is the point of increasing awareness and are we any more knowledgeable about mental health just because it’s May?

Awareness campaigns exist for a plethora of causes, some of which are serious and some of which are not so much. (Did you know that July is Hot Dog Awareness Month?!) Now, I’m no marketing expert, but I imagine that awareness campaigns serve a variety of purposes: to convey new information to the public, to inform public policy, and to reduce stigma, all with the intended result of more people being able to get the care (or hot dogs) they need.

But what about the knowledge part? Do you suddenly know more about mental health just because it’s May? I’m guessing not, but I know some people who do. The National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) is a nationally recognized organization that “provides advocacy, education, support and public awareness so that all individuals and families affected by mental illness can build better lives” (www.nami.org). NAMI reported that in 2020, 1 in 5 adults in America experienced mental health issues, but 4.9 million of those needing mental health care were not able to access it. NAMI also reported that 50% of mental illness begins by age 14, and 75% of mental illness begins by age 24.  

Okay, the numbers are important information, but what do they mean when they talk about mental illness or mental health issues? Mental illness includes disorders such as depression, anxiety, Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder, and Schizophrenia, to name a few. However, a person can experience mental health concerns or benefit from mental health treatment, but not meet criteria for a diagnosis. For example, someone dealing with stress from caring for an ailing parent or a couple who struggles with communication in their marriage. Sometimes children and teens have big feelings they don’t know what to do with, and a therapist can help them make sense of things. The media often portrays mental illness as scary and causing significant impairment, but there are oodles of reasons people seek mental health care. I promise it’s not all doom and gloom!

Here are some signs/symptoms that indicate you or a friend or family member would likely benefit from mental health care (taken directly from www.nami.org):

  • Excessive worrying or fear
  • Feeling excessively sad or low
  • Confused thinking or problems concentrating and learning
  • Extreme mood changes, including uncontrollable “highs” or feelings of euphoria
  • Prolonged or strong feelings of irritability or anger
  • Avoiding friends and social activities
  • Difficulties understanding or relating to other people
  • Changes in sleeping habits or feeling tired and low energy
  • Changes in eating habits such as increased hunger or lack of appetite
  • Difficulty perceiving reality (delusions or hallucinations, in which a person experiences and senses things that don’t exist in objective reality)
  • Thinking about suicide
  • Inability to carry out daily activities or handle daily problems and stress

If you or a loved one have been persistently (2 weeks or more) experiencing one or more of the above symptoms, it might be time to talk to a professional. A good place to start is your primary care physician, but you might also want to reach out directly to a local therapist. Psychology Today (Find a Therapist, Psychologist, Counselor – Psychology Today) and Therapy Den (Find a Therapist by State – TherapyDen) both offer searchable directories of therapists and other mental health professionals.

If you are experiencing thoughts of harming yourself or others, please seek immediate help. The National Suicide Hotline is available 24/7 at 1-800-273-8255 or by texting 741741. The safest option, though, is to call 911 for immediate intervention.   

 

-written by Brittney Homann, MS Ed, MSW, LCSW