May Aint Just About Flowers: Why Mental Health Awareness Month Is So Important

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. This is the month that we mental health professionals, survivors, families, and those otherwise dedicated to the cause take to raising awareness and dollars to advance our agenda. For us, May aint just about the flowers! The Good Dr. is here to tell you that for some, April showers are a 12-month occurrence. For others, the flowers are but an illusion. So here is why I do what I do, and why this month is so incredibly important:

To Educate: Knowledge truly is power. You can’t address what you don’t admit, and you won’t heal what you don’t acknowledge. Not only must we become a more educated society with respect to mental illness, but we must seek truth.  A wise Bishop once stated, “It is not the truth that will set you free, it’s the knowledge of the truth.” So here is a small sampling of the truth about mental illness and its impact:

  • Approx. 63M Americans (26.2%) suffer from a diagnosable mental illness each year — whether or not they are ever diagnosed (NIMH)
  • Anxiety Disorders comprise the most frequently occurring diagnosis; with 18.1% of Americans and women more likely to suffer this type of disorder than men (NAMI)
  • 16M adults live with major depression
  • African-Americans and Hispanics utilize mental health services at half the rate of Caucasian Americans (NAMI)
  • Each day an estimated 18-22 veterans die by suicide
  • Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the US; the 3rd leading cause in people aged 10-24 and the 2nd leading cause in people aged 15-24
  • Among the 20.2M Americans in the US living with a substance use disorder, 50.5% of them have another co-occurring mental illness
  • Gay, lesbian, transgendered or Q youth are twice as likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual counterparts

The truth of the matter is that minority communities are predisposed and significantly more vulnerable to mental health issues due to the stress of living in a society that discriminates, marginalizes and moves against them aggressively on the regular, the stress of a life of poverty, urban violence, and lack of access to affordable quality healthcare. The truth of the matter is that even when we do have the means to afford mental health care or the access to it, we don’t use it. The sad truth is that there are historical and cultural myths, traditions, and beliefs that keep us stuck in dysfunction and suffering in silence. The truth of the matter is that we are a prideful people who are trained not to ask for help, to take it on the chin, to be the superwoman and Mandingo warrior labels that have been ascribed to us.

To Advocate:  Those of we regular people who have voices and concerns that often go unheard need to not only learn to advocate for ourselves, but we must also empower those in the position to advocate for our interests. Grassroots organizations and activists like the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) regularly lobby Congress and state legislatures to enact laws that ensure the ease of accessibility, quality, and affordability of mental health care in addition to taking stances, (even unpopular ones), on issues that have a mental health nexus. For example, it was lobbyists that were instrumental in getting the gun laws strengthened following the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007, and lobbyists that led to the tightening of the mental health data reporting laws from states to federal databases for background checks. Related to empowering advocates, one way is to donate money and/or volunteer your time in assistance to these organizations.

To Eradicate:  In the early 1960’s, psychiatrist Thomas Szasz wrote a well publicized (and criticized) book entitled The Myth of Mental Illness; eschewing mental illness as nothing more than a stigmatizing label placed on people with problems in living. While I understand his argument, and agree that mental illness has historically been a destructive label used to isolate and separate those with real problems, it has also been a way that behavioral scientists and researchers have come to understand, study, categorize and treat classes of symptoms. There is still great stigma attached to having, admitting to, or seeking treatment for any type of mental illness — no matter the context. Even when, by right, symptoms should be expected (i.e. veterans returning from the horrors of battle, or someone going through a difficult divorce), we tout only the strength and seeming resilience shown as if it is a badge of honor to not break down during such tragedies. If history teaches us anything, it is that silence kills. We must work together to end stigma. We must admit and acknowledge when we are struggling. We must make it OK to say, “I am not OK.”

One thing the Millennial generation understands and gets my total admiration for is their openness and proud ownership of their issues and ‘isms.’ They wear their issues like a crown for all to see, and true to their generational nature highlight their battles and make a platform of them to help others. From Prince Harry’s admission of his early struggles with depression, to Chance the Rapper’s acknowledging his PTSD from urban violence, to Kid Cudi very openly admitting his battles with depression and suicidality — these youngins are launching a very public campaign to destigmatize help seeking. As the Good Book says, ‘…A little child shall lead them’ and the Bible aint never lie! Say what you want to about Generation Z but right now, they lead the fight to end stigma. And I stand boldly and courageously with them.

Do your part in May. Educate someone. Admit that there have been times when you were not OK. Check on your people. Donate some dollars to the cause, or join the annual NAMI walk that every major city has on May 20th. For more information on how you can advance this cause, especially during this seminal month, go to http://www.NAMI.org.

Be well,

The Good Dr. Nik

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Dr. Nicole Alford is a DMV-based clinical psychologist, writer and prolific blogger, teacher, media commentator and compassionate activist working to raise mental health awareness and end stigma. For more information on her professional services, view her website at http://www.TheGoodDrNik.com, and follow her @TheGoodDrNik on all social media platforms.

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