If I had a nickel for every time one of my loved ones was diagnosed with schizophrenia, I’d have two nickels—which isn’t a lot, but it’s kind of weird that it happened twice, given that schizophrenia only affects about 1% of the United States population. Then again, perhaps that goes to show that mental health conditions in general are far more common than we might assume. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. live with a mental illness, and about 1 in 25 adults in the U.S. lives with what is referred to as a “serious mental illness,” such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or major depression.
May is National Mental Health Awareness Month, so today we’re going to talk about mental health, the stigma associated with mental health conditions (and how to reduce it in your life to help those you care about), how to recognize the signs of mental health distress in yourself and others, and where to go for help with your mental health.
“Mental Health” is just as broad a term as “physical health,” and can be used to talk about both the presence or absence of an illness or condition, and the overall state of mental well-being. According to the CDC, mental health “includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being,” and “affects how we think, feel, and act.” Mental health also “helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make healthy choices.”
There’s a lot that goes into any discussion of mental health, and we could spend an entire article talking about either various illnesses or conditions, or the ways to improve your mental health, no matter the current state. Both are important, but here’s the nitty-gritty we want you to walk away with: mental health is just as important as physical health, and you often struggle with one when you struggle with the other. People living with mental illness often are at higher risk for physical health problems, such as diabetes, heart disease and stroke. People living with chronic physical health conditions—like diabetes, heart disease, and chronic pain—often wind up with depression or other mental health conditions.
So, what counts as a mental illness or condition? In the medical world, there’s a nearly 1000-page book commonly called the DSM-5 dedicated to helping healthcare providers answer that question—because as it turns out, there are a lot of things that negatively affect human mental well-being. They can include anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress, generalized stress, grief responses, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and many more. So when we talk about Mental Health Awareness this month, we want you to think about how many people in your life (including yourself!) might be struggling with any one of those conditions without you knowing it or understanding the impact on their lives.
One of the greatest challenges in addressing mental health, be it your own or that of your loved ones, is overcoming layers of stigma that make it difficult to acknowledge and discuss mental health issues. Stigma—which is when people make negative assumptions about someone based on their condition—can come from many sources, including from the person with the mental health condition. Stigma can lead to discrimination, worsening symptoms, and reduced likelihood of getting treatment. Below are some examples of negative or discriminatory thoughts and statements that come from mental health stigma:
Those negative statements and thoughts lead to shame and lowered self-esteem in people with mental health conditions, which can lead to avoidance of treatment and lack of desire to engage with things that can help with their conditions, like social engagement and assistance programs. They can also lead to isolation and reduced employment, school, or social opportunities, and to bullying, harassment, and violence. At the community and political level, mental health stigma can affect policies, funding, and support for needed services. To make matters worse, those statements are not true.
It's important not to let stigma, even your own, get in the way of getting proper treatment. It’s also important to find support, such as through a support group for people with similar mental illness, or for their friends and families. Learning to talk about mental illness without negativity and stigma can be part of recovery, for yourself and for your loved ones with mental illnesses.
One easy step you can take now is to change how you talk about mental illness to put the person first, not the illness. You are not your mental illness. Instead of saying “I’m depressed,” or “I’m bipolar,” say “I have depression,” or “I have bipolar disorder.” Instead of saying, “she is schizophrenic,” say “my friend has schizophrenia.”
And if you’re thinking to yourself, “that just sounds like sugar-coating,” I’ll cheerfully remind you that, in the famous words of Mary Poppins, a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down. And that’s the whole point—reducing the negativity surrounding mental health and shaping our thoughts and statements into a kinder, more compassionate attitude actually helps with treatment of those conditions.
That 1,000-page book we mentioned earlier is also dedicated to the signs and symptoms of the various mental health disorders. We can’t list them all here, so here’s a simple bottom line: if you feel bad enough, or often enough, that it’s interfering with your life, your relationships, your job, how you take care of yourself, or how you take care of others in your life, you probably should take the time to talk to your doctor and find out if you might be struggling with a mental health condition.
Yes, I know, “feeling bad” is a vague description. Here are some things you may be feeling that could be signs of a mental health condition:
Everyone feels some of these on occasion. If you or a loved one feels them every day, or more than half the time, or even for just several days in a two-week period, it’s possible you or they need some help. Or maybe you feel those things and there doesn’t seem to be a reason—things in your life are mostly normal, work is going well, your relationships are fine, but you just feel bad. Or you seem to swing between bad feelings like the ones listed above, and periods of really good feelings or really high energy, and there doesn’t seem to be a good explanation for it.
None of these things automatically mean you have a mental health disorder, but it’s better to talk to your doctor or healthcare provider about your experiences and ask them to screen you properly if you suspect something might be wrong. Remember, too, that seeking treatment doesn’t necessarily mean medication, if that’s something you want to avoid—sometimes it just means talk therapy with a licensed counselor.
If you think you or a loved one might be having a mental health crisis, call 988 for immediate help. The call center is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for anyone of any age, including for people with limited English proficiency or who are deaf or hard of hearing.
You and your family can also call SAMHSA’s National Helpline, 1-800-662-HELP (4357). SAMHSA is the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services administration, and they are open 24 hours a day to help with mental health concerns and refer you to resources in your area. Just like 988, they can also provide crisis assistance like suicide prevention counseling. They also refer to support groups for families of people with mental health disorders, so you can be connected to emotional support of your own if your loved one’s condition is affecting you.
Otherwise, your primary care provider (that’s us at ICHC!) can help screen you for mental health disorders, and can refer you to a specialist if you need one. You can also dial 211 on your phone to be connected with Alaska’s call center to help you find a place to go for treatment.
Here’s the good news! Private insurance is federally required to cover mental health treatment. Alaska Medicaid also covers these services. And last but not least, Community Health Centers (like us at ICHC!) offer sliding fee discounts based on your income, whether or not you have insurance, so you can find health care that you can afford. Call us at 907-455-4567, option 1, to schedule an appointment today.
Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. "About Mental Health." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Published June 28, 2021. https://www.cdc.gov/mentalhealth/learn/index.htm.
SAMHSA Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. “National Helpline | SAMHSA - Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.” Samhsa.gov, 14 May 2022, www.samhsa.gov/find-help/national-helpline. Accessed 13 Apr. 2023.