Mental Health Awareness – Raising the Issues

May is Mental Health Awareness Month; this month, reporter John Wm. Dunn spoke with NAMI Washtenaw volunteers and staff to understand why they believe it is important to raise awareness and break the stigma around mental health conditions.

By John Wm. Dunn, NAMI Washtenaw County Reporter

During this past week, I had the distinct pleasure of talking with several staff members and volunteers for NAMI Washtenaw County. In the process of conducting these interviews, I learned that although our members have varying perspectives on the spectrum of mental health conditions and challenges, we all struggle together with the common goal of promoting awareness and conducting advocacy. To honor the National Mental Health Awareness Month this final week of May, I would like to present to you what I have discovered from our members and staff.

Everyone I have had the opportunity to speak with shares a common concern and passion for educating and raising the awareness of mental health conditions and challenges in our county and society – the mission of NAMI in our community as well as at a national level. Perhaps the most important aspect of recognizing mental health conditions is the detection of early warning signs. Our board president, Lois, was kind enough to share the story of a woman, Christina, who shared that she was conscious of always wearing a metaphorical mask in public, appearing happy and extroverted when inside she was sad and ashamed of her depression.

Unfortunately, Christina’s situation is all too common in today’s world. Lois shared that in 2020 alone, there were 52.9 million individuals living with mental illnesses in the United States. This statistic represents approximately 20% of our national population. To put this in a clearer perspective, one out of every five persons in our society will experience a serious mental disorder. This means that today virtually every adult individual will encounter mental health issues either as a patient, a caregiver, or an advocate. Further, Lois has pointed out that the suicide rate rose 35.5% between 1999 and 2018. These statistics will only grow larger if we do not act now to make society aware of these issues, provide the necessary resources to improve mental health services, and provide these services to all populations including those who cannot afford them for any reason whatsoever.

Regrettably, our nation has a very dark history regarding the treatment of those who suffer from any form of mental illness. Barb, our office manager, has made me aware of the rampant abuse of patients warehoused in state mental hospitals during the post-World War ll era, and has also pointed out that many patients became homeless or incarcerated as the majority of the state institutions were closed in response to President Kennedy’s enactment of the Community Mental Health Act of 1963. She, along with others including myself, would currently like to see a greater infrastructure network to make access to mental health services available to everyone who has a mental health condition regardless of the severity and the ability to pay.  Barb shared many of the same concerns as Lois; however, she added the fact that raising awareness of issues is vital not only in the detection of mental illness, but also in its treatment. Simple logic dictates that those who are keenly aware of their symptoms are far more likely to communicate their feelings with professionals who develop a treatment plan for recovery, which is possible. Self-awareness of a possible mental health issue can be a significant factor in an individual’s ability to seek treatment, and for many it may be the most important, and probably the most difficult, step in recovery. 

Both Barb and Mark, our advocacy lead, promote the importance of integrated health care in our nation and state. Although Mark is currently advocating for state legislation in this area, Barb would also like to see our nation work towards a more holistic health care system. Barb believes that mental illness is an illness just like any other illness, it just happens to affect the brain: the least understood organ of the human body. Because the brain affects the functioning of all organs of the body, integrated health care is vital in preventing relapse or complications in physical and mental health.

Pat, our outreach director, emphasized the importance of an accurate picture of mental health issues in society. She pointed out that only a small proportion of shootings nationwide were committed by individuals with a mental health diagnosis. Furthermore, she went on to point out that research has indicated that individuals with mental health conditions are far more likely to be victims of violence rather than perpetrators. Thus, the myths surrounding mental health are very stigmatizing and derogatory to those individuals who are members of this population. For these reasons, Pat is passionate about the mission and goals of NAMI which is to increase the knowledge and awareness of mental health issues to support individuals who fall on this spectrum.

The staff and members I spoke to this week are very passionate about their beliefs about the importance of raising awareness of mental health issues in society. I sincerely hope that this article both raises awareness of NAMI’s concerns and inspires you to advocate for these issues on a personal level. Although there was a consensus of some key points, everyone contributed to this article with his or her unique concerns which serves to broaden our understanding of the field of mental health. At this time, I would like to personally thank Lois, Barb, Mark, and Pat as well as Darlene Wetzel (who, although not specifically mentioned in this article, voiced similar concerns) for sharing with me.

John began his journey over twenty-five years ago with a psychotic break in which he experienced several religious thoughts and delusions which were out of touch with reality or true spirituality. Throughout the years following his diagnosis as an adult who struggles with schizoaffective disorder, he has received formal education in religious studies and philosophy while praying and studying the “big picture” of mental illness and the “bigger questions” of life. Through his religious studies courses he received an understanding of his inner being which includes his diagnosis as well as the “big picture” of how he would feel if he were mentally and emotionally stable. Through his education in philosophy, he came to an understanding of how to reach this state through a logical approach to his therapy. It is his desire to share this journey which he will continue throughout the remainder of his mortal life with his audience.

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