May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Mental health is just as important as physical health, but it’s often overlooked in American society. For starters, when we hear “mental illness,” many of us automatically think someone must “be crazy” and have severe mental health issues. But this is not the case. The American Psychiatric Association (APA, 2018) defines mental illnesses as “conditions involving changes in emotion, thinking, or behavior (or a combination of these).” The APA adds these struggles are often associated with stress or problems functioning in society (para. 1). Mental health struggles run the gamut from moderate to severe, and they include conditions such as anxiety disorders, impulse control and addiction, personality disorders, post-traumatic stress, and dissociative disorders (Goldberg, 2019). Mental health struggles are also relatively common. The National Institutes of Health (NIH, n.d.) explain nearly one in five Americans suffer from some form of mental illness, whether mild, moderate, or severe.
Barriers to Treatment
Despite mental health issues being so wide ranging and common, they are often taboo topics of discussion in society. There is a stigma associated with mental health struggles that prevents people from talking about these issues amongst their peers and, according to Parcesepe and Cabassa (2014) prevents people from seeking medical care for these issues. This stigma appears to impact men more than women. Cohut (2021) tells readers various studies show men are less likely to receive mental health treatment than women, and in fact men in the U.S. have a higher rate of suicide than women. This reluctance of men to seek out treatment is at least partially attributable to stereotypes surrounding masculinity.
In addition to stigmas and ideas surrounding masculinity, access to care is another barrier. Sometimes this barrier is financial, and other times it is finding a provider, being able to schedule an appointment without extended wait times, and then actually being able to get to an appointment if telemedicine is not an option.
Declining Mental Health in the U.S.
Unfortunately, mental health in the U.S. is declining. Mental Health America’s (2021) report found a higher percentage of youth with severe mental health issues in 2021 than in 2020, and it also found the prevalence of mental health issues among adults was increasing even before the COVID-19 pandemic.
The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated mental health struggles for many people because of the added stress and anxiety stemming from the unknown of a new virus, isolation from friends and family, stress from work and school changes (for example, disrupting normal routines, changing the format of work and school, or losing jobs), and missed mental health provider appointments.
Our social media culture does not help our mental health. We are constantly connected, and people are likely to share the highlights of their lives rather than their struggles. The social comparison theory posits that we evaluate ourselves in relation to others. Being constantly connected to people and seeing only their highlights can make us strive for more, feel inadequate, and feel embarrassed about our own struggles. Many studies have shown a link between social media use and increased anxiety and depression. Warrender (2020) discusses these studies as well as social media and social comparison and their impact on mental health in greater detail.
Signs of Mental Illness
Everyone has feelings of sadness and anxiety, so having these feelings doesn’t automatically mean you have a mental illness. But, Verbanas (2021) explains, when these feelings last weeks or months rather than just a few days, when they impact your daily life, or when they lead to suicidal thoughts, you should seek treatment (“What are the signs?”).
According to NAMI (2021), common symptoms of mental illness in adults and adolescents can include excessive worrying or fear, feeling extremely sad, sudden and extreme mood changes, confusion, and irrational or prolonged anger. Children may have the same symptoms, and they may also experience hyperactivity, nightmares, and changes in school performance. Visit the NAMI website for a more comprehensive list of symptoms.
Improve Your Mental Health
You can take actions to improve your mental health; however, understand that a mental illness typically requires treatment from a licensed professional in addition to the steps below, and it is important to recognize when you need professional help.
The National Library of Medicine’s MedlinePlus (2021) recommends the following practices to improve your mental health: stay positive, practice gratitude, take care of your physical health, develop healthy relationships with others, meditate, and practice relaxation techniques. Visit their site to learn more about these practices.
Mental Health America (2021) also recommends journaling, building confidence by doing things you’re good at, laughing, practicing forgiveness, and diet modifications. Visit their site for more strategies.
Get Professional Help
If you believe you are suffering from a mental illness, reach out for help as soon as possible. Neglecting mental illness can have detrimental consequences. Mild illnesses may become more severe, and untreated mental illnesses can lead to larger issues such as loss of friends and family, loss of work, substance abuse, and suicide.
If you feel comfortable talking to your family medical provider for a recommendation, you can start there. You may also have a network of mental health providers to reach out to via your insurance company. Schools often have counselors available, and your employer may offer mental health assistance. CVS also recently launched mental health counseling at its MinuteClinics.
Remember, mental health issues are nothing to be ashamed of, and we should all admit when we need help, and then get help.