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  • Melissa Sims

America's Mental Health Crisis: Breaking the Stigma and Finding Solutions

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, a time to shed light on the very real struggles millions of Americans face every day. While mental health conversations are becoming more commonplace, we still have a long way to go in tackling the crisis at hand. May has been designated as such since 1949, so it seems that we could be a lot further along by now. 



A Growing Crisis


Mental illness is a health issue, plain and simple. Just as heart disease, kidney disease, diabetes, etc, are all health issues. We need to be treating it just as we would any other ailment or illness that is affecting us. It can affect your thoughts, mood, behavior, even how you perceive the world around you. Some mental illness is genetic, some is temporary, and some can be life long and even cause serious disability. Issues can range from depression, anxiety, personality disorders, eating disorders, trauma-related (such as PTSD), and even substance abuse. 


The numbers paint a stark picture. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), in 2021, over 50 million American adults – 1 in 4 – experienced a mental illness. That number jumps to 1 in 6 youth aged 6-17. These statistics are even more concerning when you consider that only about half of those who need mental health treatment actually receive it. And the delay between symptom onset and first treatment is estimated to be at 11 years. That’s pretty staggering. 


The COVID-19 pandemic undeniably exacerbated this crisis. Feelings of isolation, fear, and uncertainty caused anxiety and depression rates to soar. A 2023 report by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that 38% more people sought mental healthcare since the pandemic began [ America's Mental Health Crisis | The Pew Charitable Trusts pewtrusts.org].


Factors Contributing to the Crisis


There isn't a single cause for the rise in mental health issues. It's a complex interplay of social, economic, and biological factors. Here are some of the key contributors:


  • Social Media and Technology: While social media can provide connection and support, it can also contribute to feelings of isolation and inadequacy. The constant barrage of curated feeds and unrealistic portrayals of life can lead to social comparison and low self-esteem. Cyberbullying and the pressure to constantly be "on" can also take a toll on mental well-being.

  • Economic Strain: Financial insecurity is a major stressor. Job insecurity, student loan debt, and the rising cost of living can all contribute to anxiety and depression.


  • Lack of Access to Quality Care: The high cost of mental health care and limited availability of mental health professionals, particularly in rural areas, create significant barriers to treatment. Additionally, many insurance plans don't provide adequate coverage for mental health services, forcing people to choose between getting the help they need and affording basic necessities.


Breaking the Chains of Stigma


There is a glimmer of hope. The stigma surrounding mental health is slowly but surely being chipped away. Celebrities like Dwayne Johnson and Michael Phelps have opened up about their struggles, normalizing the conversation and showing that mental health challenges don't discriminate. Social media has also played a role, with online communities providing safe spaces for people to share their experiences and find support.


However, the stigma is far from eradicated. Many people still fear discrimination if they seek help for a mental health issue. This can prevent them from getting the treatment they need and lead to feelings of shame and isolation. If you are not feeling like yourself, and aren’t sure if you need to seek help, here are some signs of mental illness to look out for.


  • unusual or illogical thoughts

  • unreasonable anger or irritability

  • poor concentration and memory, not being able to follow a conversation

  • hearing voices that no one else can hear

  • increased or decreased sleep

  • increased or low appetite, or preoccupation with control over food, calories or excessive exercise

  • lack of motivation

  • withdrawing from people

  • drug use

  • feelings that life is not worth living or suicidal thoughts

  • becoming obsessed with a topic, like death or religion

  • not looking after personal hygiene or other responsibilities

  • not doing as well as usual at school or work


Researchers are still trying to understand what causes mental illness. There is not simply one cause, and often it is a complex mix of factors. These can include genetics, upbringing, culture, and other factors like traumatic events or situations.


Some examples of these factors include:


Genetics: certain mental illnesses have shown genetic markers and can increase the chance that you might get a mental illness. This is not a definitive reason, however, as it isn’t always genetic/hereditary and doesn’t always pass down.


Drug and alcohol abuse can trigger a manic episode (bipolar disorder) or an episode of psychosis. Drugs such as cocaine, marijuana and amphetamines can cause paranoia.


Biological factors such as some medical conditions or hormonal changes can cause mental health problems.


Early life environment plays a role as well. Negative childhood experiences like abuse or neglect can increase the risk of some mental illnesses.


Traumatic life events or ongoing stress can increase the risk of mental illness. Issues such as social isolation, domestic violence, relationship breakdown, financial or work problems can impact on mental health. Traumatic experiences such as living in a war zone can increase the risk of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).


Personality traits such as perfectionism or low self-esteem can increase the risk of depression or anxiety.


If you’re experiencing symptoms of a mental illness, it can be hard to know whether to see a doctor as feelings like sadness or worry can change over time. However, if those feelings or symptoms are having an impact on your daily life it’s important to get help.


The Road to More Awareness and Support


Mental health doesn't exist in a vacuum. Creating a supportive environment requires a multi-pronged approach, and corporations and health insurance companies have a significant role to play, and are beginning to affect change.


  • Employee Mental Health Benefits: Companies are starting to prioritize employee mental health by offering comprehensive health insurance plans that cover mental health services. This could include therapy, medication, and inpatient treatment. Additionally, some companies are creating wellness programs that promote mental health awareness and provide resources for employees who are struggling.


  • Flexible Work Arrangements: Work-life balance is crucial for mental well-being. Companies have also started to offer flexible work arrangements, such as remote work options, compressed workweeks, and generous paid time off, to help employees manage stress and maintain boundaries between work and personal life.


  • Destigmatizing Mental Health in the Workplace: Company culture plays a big part in normalizing conversations about mental health. Leaders can set the tone by openly discussing mental health and encouraging employees to seek help when they need it. Mental health training for managers can equip them to identify signs of distress in employees and provide appropriate support.


While May is Mental Health Awareness Month, the fight for better mental health resources and a more supportive environment needs to be a year-round effort. We need continued action from individuals, corporations, and the government to ensure that everyone has access to quality mental healthcare. Here are some ways you can get involved:


  • Educate Yourself: Learn about common mental health conditions and how to recognize the signs in yourself and others. There are many reputable sources of information online and in libraries.


  • Challenge the Stigma: Speak openly about mental health and challenge negative stereotypes. Share your story or the stories of others who have bravely sought help.


  • Advocate for Change: Contact your elected officials and urge them to support legislation that expands access to mental health care.


  • Seek Help if You Need It: Don't be afraid to reach out for help if you are struggling with your mental health. There are many resources available, including therapists, support groups, and hotlines.


Taking care of our mental health is just as important as taking care of our physical health. By working together, we can create a future where everyone feels comfortable seeking help and has the resources they need to thrive.


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