Mental Health Awareness – 5 Things You Need to Know

Today I has the opportunity to moderate the “You Are Not Alone” panel for our Mental Health Summit at work.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. This month of awareness is to help break the stigma of mental health and mental illness. It is to normalize that mental health is a part of the human experience as much as any other of our identities.

In fact, our mental health spans across our social identities and our social identities impact our mental health. I am a gay man who has ADHD and anxiety. I have struggled to talk about having ADHD and anxiety because I felt like it made me “less than” or that people who look at me like I was “disabled”. In the past few years I have leaned into talking about only to find out that so many people are experiencing what I am experiencing and that it is okay to talk about it.

According to the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI), about 1 in 5 people experience a mental illness in a given year and about 1 in 25 people live with a serious mental illness.

I want to share 5 things you need to know about mental illness.

Anxiety and Depression

About 19% of the US has been diagnosed with some kind of anxiety disorder. This is the most commonly diagnosed disorder. Depression is second with about 8% of the population being diagnosed. While Depression may be second in diagnosis, it is the “leading cause in disability worldwide, and is a major contributor to the global burden of disease (NAMI)”.

The conversation around mental health awareness has predominantly been focused on these two, with more and more people (including celebrities), sharing their stories. This has been an attempt to help break the stigma.

This is great news and something well needed! There is also so much more we still need to talk about.

Psychotic Disorders and Personality Disorders

Disorders like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia are considered psychotic disorders because the person experiences abnormal thinking or perception and may even lose touch with reality.

Personality disorders are different on that these disorders are often a pattern in one’s personality that falls outside the accepted norms of behaviors. This often leads to challenges in personal relationships and functioning in society. Some examples of this are narcissist personality disorder and borderline personality disorder.

The problem is that we still do not talk about these types of disorders like we do anxiety and depression. There is still quite a stigma around these disorders and misunderstanding of what these mean.

What is worse is that stereotypes of people with these disorders only makes the situation even worse. Villains in movies and shows are often portrayed as people with psychotic disorders (think Joker from Batman) that are dangerous. The reality is people with psychotic disorders are not rarely dangerous nor are they “villainous”.

Check this article out to learn more: Why Stereotypes About Psychosis Are Harmful

I often wonder how many people have been rejected from their families or have been fired because they have a psychotic or personality disorder and no one understood them or what was happening?

People with these disorders tend to be unaware they have a disorder.

Eating Disorders

One of the most invisible and not talked about disorders are eating disorders like anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. Those two are the most common eating disorders. Women experience eating disorders more than men. This is driven by an obsession or issues with thinking about food, eating, shape, appearance, etc.

Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of all disorders. This is important information that we also need to talk about.

Marginalized Groups

Marginalized groups are disproportionately impacted by mental health issues than the dominant group.

LGBTQ+ people are twice as likely to experience mental health issues than heterosexual people. Transgender people are four times more likely to experience suicide ideation. This is directly related to a unique experience in our community: rejection from family and society. Religion has played a key part in this as religious parents and communities reject LGBTQ+ people.

BIPOC people tend to experience mental health challenges at similar rate to other groups. However, racial disparity in this country has created a barrier that either prevents BIPOC people access to care and/or institutional racism in healthcare has caused a major distrust in the system and so less people are seeking support. There is a stigma of mental health within this community that prevents people from addressing mental illness and is often met with “pray it away”. The BIPOC community has higher rates of hypertension due to the stress of racial inequity and inequality.

Despite this information, it is white middle-aged men who, while not a marginalized group at all, experience the highest rates of death by suicide. This is driven from a culture of “masculinity” (whatever that means) where men can’t talk about their feelings which can lead to a catastrophic outcome.

We can see that mental health is very much part of the human experience for everyone and that our identities are directly tied to every part of us.

Words Matter

What we say plays a part in either the continuation of mental health stigma or it finally coming to an end.

We have to be mindful of what we say when talking about mental health.

Here are a couple of examples:

  1. Just because you like a clean/organized desk does not mean you have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). That is an actual disorder that is crippling for some people.
  2. Your ex-boyfriend was not a narcissist just because you think it. More than likely, you are avoiding accountability in your role in that situation. Using this term loosely takes away from people who have been impacted by someone with narcissist personality disorder.
  3. Someone is not bipolar just because they are unpredictable. This is also being used as a negative term or insult when it is an actual disorder.

It is also important to refer to people as “a person with X disorder”. They are people first and happen to have a disorder. They are not their disorder. A disorder is not an adjective.

Lastly, death by suicide tends to be the culmination of mental illness. Instead of saying someone “committed suicide” or “killed themselves” (which puts the guilt on the person who died), the appropriate term is “death by suicide“. Just like someone dies of a heart attack or cancer, someone dies of a mental illness.

Closing thoughts

This list is not an exhaustive list and there is still so much more that needs to be talked about (like substance use disorder and postpartum depression). It is important that we raise our own awareness of what mental health is, what mental health issues exist, what they mean, and how can best support those around us who may be experiencing a mental health challenge.

With some curiosity and empathy, we can show up as allies for those who need us. We can also learn to ask for support for those of us who experience mental health challenges. Awareness will allow us to show up for each other and create a space of support instead of stigma.

Here are some resources to learn more.


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