12 May This May, Become a Mental Health Advocate for Mental Health Awareness Month
This year, Mental Health Awareness Month feels especially timely, as scientific publications and news pieces continue to chronicle the ongoing mental health crisis in America. COVID, and its impact across all areas of life has triggered an alarming spike in feelings of loneliness, depression, anxiety, stress, and hopelessness. The Kaiser Family Fund reports that in regular surveys conducted throughout the pandemic, about 4 in 10 US adults reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder, a notable increase from the 1 in 10 adults who reported these symptoms prior to the pandemic’s onset.
For children and adolescents, the impact may be even more profound. In observance of National Children’s Mental Health Week, we wrote about the “state of emergency” around pediatric mental health, as healthcare providers note alarming increases in emergency department visits due to suicidal ideation and other behavioral health emergencies. Experts note that these visits are prompted by a variety of emergency care needs, including eating disorders, unusual tics, and substance misuse.
Although the pandemic helped shine a spotlight on the acute need to advance mental and behavioral healthcare in America, the prevalence of mental illness had already been steadily climbing for the past decade. According to Mental Health America, nearly 1 in 5 Americans experienced a mental illness in 2019, prior to the pandemic. Many Americans bear their burden alone, partly because of historical stigma associated with mental illness, and partly because access to care is woefully limited for far too many.
While an estimated 53 million Americans live with mental illness, it is believed that more than half of adults and nearly one in three youth with major depression do not receive treatment. In light of the growing need, Mental Health Awareness Month is an especially important period of time. Social posts, educational content, and community events highlighted throughout the month of May are invaluable tools for educating the public, spurring awareness, reducing stigma, and helping those who experience symptoms know they are not alone.
The Importance of Mental Health Awareness Month
Mental Health Awareness Month was established in 1949 by Mental Health America (MHA) to increase awareness around the importance of building positive mental health outcomes, help reduce negative stigma, and celebrate the potential of recovery for a full and productive life. On a whole, the month is designed to educate the public on the broader societal impact of mental illness as it pertains to overall quality of life, including the physical, emotional, and mental well-being of children, families, and communities as a whole.
This year, MHA chose “Back to Basics” as its theme. As the world reemerges from lockdown measures and social isolation, the pandemic’s enduring stress has created loneliness, anxiety, and grief, all of which has contributed to a general frayed state of mental health. The organization takes special care to mention that certain communities may require additional support, including those targeted by racism, homophobia, transphobia, sexism, and other forms of systemic oppression and violence, who may bear an even heavier mental health burden.
To help individuals learn how to reset and cope with mental illness after the last two years of pandemic life, MHA created a comprehensive toolkit to help individuals get “Back to Basics,” by providing “foundational knowledge about mental health and mental health conditions, that includes information about what people can do if their mental health is a cause for concern.” Within the kit, individuals can access educational and actionable factsheets, such as one that helps teach readers how to “[Maintain] Good Mental Health.”
With a similar goal, the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI), also celebrates National Mental Health Awareness Month by advocating for mental health services and broader access to care. In the interest of promoting unity and community after the last 2+ pandemic years, NAMI’s theme for this year is “Together for Mental Health” so that “we can realize our shared vision of a nation where anyone affected by mental illness can get the appropriate support and quality of care to live healthy, fulfilling lives.”
As a result of awareness and public education efforts over the last several decades, dramatic strides have been made to help improve the outlook and quality of life for those affected by mental illness.
- In 2016, the Affordable Care Act expanded access for behavioral health services, extending coverage to an estimated 11 million Americans with substance use and/or mental health service needs.
- In 2008, the Mental Parity and Addiction Equity Act improved access to mental health and substance use disorder treatments by providing more equitable insurance coverage.
- Grant programs, such as SAMHSA’s Garrett Lee Smith State/Tribal Youth Suicide Prevention and Early Intervention Grant Program, which aids in youth suicide prevention and intervention efforts, and the Community Mental Health Services Block Grant, which supports community-based services and evidence-based practices for those with severe behavioral health challenges.
How to Advocate for Mental Health
Mental health is a comprehensive term that includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being – which means our state of mental wellness impacts our ability to think, interact with others, and make decisions. Our mental wellness is deeply intertwined with our overall health and physical wellness – when we are healthy mentally, we are better able to care for our bodies, exercise, eat nutritious meals, and achieve regular full nights of sleep. By building resilience, developing coping mechanisms to confront negative thoughts, creating self-care rituals, and introducing healthy habits, we can all build positive mental health that contributes to our overall well-being.
The first step to seeking help for you or a loved one is by identifying a problem. Mental illnesses are complicated and symptoms present in a variety of ways. Experiencing any feelings or behaviors on this list can be early indication of a deeper issue:
- Disruptions to typical sleep patterns
- Distancing from people and usual activities
- Feeling drained or having low energy
- Experiencing feelings of numbness
- Having feelings of helplessness or hopelessness
- Relying on substances, such as cigarettes, alcohol, or drugs
- Fighting with family or friends
- Thoughts of self-harm
- Thoughts of violence towards others
- Experiencing mood swings that impact relationships
For Mental Health Awareness Month – and all year long – many organizations offer educational resources, reading materials, infographics, and toolkits to help build awareness, reduce stigma, promote early identification, encourage treatment, improve access to care, and amplify stories that help build a sense of community for those who are struggling. Below is a round-up of useful materials to help inform and empower your advocacy efforts.
- The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) created an official guide for this year’s Mental Health Awareness Month. Advocacy efforts include:
- #ReimagineCrisis: Help support the national roll-out of a new National Suicide Hotline – the 988 number.
- #Vote4MentalHealth: Take the pledge to vote for mental health and learn more about candidates’ views in your area.
- Share your crisis care story or personal story. Every story can make a difference in ensuring there are efficient and adequate crisis response times in communities across America.
- The Jed Foundation developed easily digestible tip sheets to empower friends, family members, teachers, and loved ones to start healthy conversations, find joy in small things, and other positive mental health outlets. To deepen your engagement:
- Follow Seize the Awkward on Instagram to hear how others have opened up and started honest conversations around mental health.
- Add to the public discourse by engaging with the Mental Health Media Guide, an online educational guide and resource library that can teach you how to tell an impactful mental health story that works to change the narrative.
- Check out the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) Mental Health Awareness Month calendar and join one of their virtual events.
- Familiarize yourself with Mental Health America’s “Back to Basics” Toolkit. The robust array of materials support outreach, awareness, and empowerment efforts.
- Review the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services’ (HHS) Mental Health Awareness Month 2022 press release that addresses the nation’s behavioral health crises. Learn about a variety of new grants, funding, and initiatives that are underway.
Whether your or someone you know is struggling with a diagnosed mental health illness, have any of the symptoms outlined above, or you’re just working to reinforce positive habits, Mental Health Awareness Month is an excellent time to join the national dialogue, share educational resources, check in with your family, and help advance the conversation around access to quality mental healthcare for everyone.
If you, your child, or another loved one is experiencing suicidal thoughts or other thoughts of self-harm, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). You can reach the Crisis Text Line immediately by texting “START” to 741-741. For any urgent safety concerns, call 911 or go directly to the emergency room.