By Loretta Graceffo
May is Mental Health Awareness Month, an annual observance to educate the public about mental illness and remind people who are suffering that they are not alone.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, nearly 1 in 5 U.S adults experienced mental illness in 2019. Since the pandemic began, the number has gone up to more than 2 in 5 people, with grief, isolation, economic challenges, and Covid-related anxiety leading to an increase in people struggling.
Because mental illness is so prevalent, conversations about mental health are more important than ever-- but that doesn’t mean that having these conversations is easy. That’s why I decided to talk to Adult Family Health Services (AFHS) staff members about some common misconceptions surrounding mental illness, and how breaking the stigma can allow us all to live happier and healthier lives.
According to Jonathan Mateja, it’s critical to recognize that experiencing mental illness isn’t the result of personal weakness or flaw.
“Growing up, when people would say they were depressed, they would often get called ‘lazy’ or ‘weak,’” said Jonathan. “People would say things like, ‘just snap out of it,’ but it’s certainly not that simple. There’s a lot of contributing factors, like family history, environmental factors, and life experiences.”
The shame that comes with mental suffering can prevent people from seeking out the help they desperately need. In fact, more than half of people with mental illness don’t receive treatment for their disorders. While much of this can be attributed to issues with affordability and accessibility, prejudice and stigma can also play a major role.
“There needs to be an open dialogue about mental health, so we can normalize it,” Jonathan said. “Expressing how you feel and opening up about your struggles is not a weakness. Asking for help is really a strength.”
Danielle Tassoni believes that conversations around mental health have been heading in a more positive direction in recent years. “When people can say something like ‘I just talked to my therapist,’ very casually, I think that’s great,” she said. “People suffer in silence because they’re afraid of being labeled as someone with mental illness, but like any other organ, your brain can need help.”
Another way that getting help can be normalized is by presenting mental health care as what it actually is: health care. “Some people struggle with diabetes and they need to take insulin to process sugar every day-- and that’s okay,” said Danielle. “It’s the same thing with taking mental health medication.”
In other words, working to take care of our minds is no more shameful than taking steps to take care of our bodies. Often, our approach to physical health is preventative, like eating healthy or exercising to avoid getting sick. There are also preventative measures we can take when it comes to our mental health. Developing healthy coping mechanisms, regularly talking about our feelings, and giving ourselves time to rest are all valuable ways of taking care of our brains in our day-to-day lives.
“We shouldn’t always wait until we’re in crisis mode to seek help,” said Danielle. “There are things we can do every step of the way, like taking time to check in with ourselves, or meeting with a therapist every six months or so, just to talk about what’s going on.”
When people are doing relatively well, it’s easy to feel like these types of steps aren’t necessary-- but, as Lara Eggerling points out, mental health is on a spectrum.
“A lot of people think that mental health issues only happen to people who are really noticeably ill or debilitated,” agreed Mark Bacco, who works with the Outpatient Substance Use programs. “But in reality, there are a lot of people that are working and living their lives-- so-called ‘average people’-- who are really walking around suffering, and going through a lot of stuff. It’s affecting a lot more people than most people understand.”
Mental Health Awareness can serve as a powerful reminder that asking for help is one of the bravest things a person can do-- and no matter what you’re going through, you’re far from the only one. “When you’re struggling, it’s easy to feel isolated, but we’re a lot more alike than we realize,” said Angela Graceffo, LCSW, Executive Director. “Everyone wants to be in an embracing environment, have a meaningful life, and reach their full potential.”