Since Mental Health America designated it so in 1949, the month of May has been recognized as Mental Health Awareness Month in the United States. This year’s theme is “Look Around, Look Within.” This month, Mental Health America has asked us to specifically look at how our environments shape our mental health. Through the Mental Health First Aid course (MHFA), we encourage participants to recognize the various places that mental health challenges can arise from, including but not limited to: adverse childhood experiences, daily life stressors, and genetics and family history.
As a society, we do a pretty good job about knowing how to help someone when they are physically injured. If we see a colleague with a broken leg, we jump up to get their paper from the printer. If we know our parent suffers from migraines, we dim the lights and speak softer. But what about when your friend says she is feeling depressed today and she can’t get out of bed for your coffee date? Maybe you have a general idea of what you would say, but do you know how to respond if it’s an acquaintance, or a neighbor you only wave hello to? We have become so accustomed to politeness and masking. We don’t take or have the time to really sit down with one another and understand each other’s challenges, and it makes it even more difficult when the challenges are invisible and can often only be described by emotions.
There are many reasons for this, a large one being stigma. Merriam-Webster defines stigma as “a set of negative and unfair beliefs that a society or group of people have about something.” Stigma has its roots in different places: cultural expectations, gender, race. But stigma is a liar. It tells us that only a certain type of people can feel this way, and I’m not one of them. It tells us that no one else deals with this, when in fact, 1 in 5 people in the United States suffer from a mental illness every year, a number that is likely underestimated. This is happening all around us, but we talk so little about it.
Another reason is accessibility. Health insurance in our country is expensive, it’s confusing; sometimes providers are far away, and sometimes the provider is not as culturally competent as you need them to be. In 2015, the American Psychology Association found that 86% of psychologists in our country were white, and the Bureau of Labor reported that in 2019, white people made up 70% of social workers and 88% of mental health counselors. These barriers are not mere annoyances, they can be deadly. During our courses, participants have bravely disclosed some of their most traumatic moments: experiences around assault, incarceration, substance use, and loneliness. One of the most challenging ones to talk about is suicide, but statistics show that in the United States, 2021 saw a suicide death every 11 minutes.
In the MHFA course, we teach individuals to recognize the early signs and symptoms of someone who may be going through a mental health crisis, as well as learning how to directly ask about suicidal thoughts, and assisting someone experiencing psychosis. As mental health first aiders and as individuals living in community, we also emphasize the importance of self-care.
But it is not enough to tell people to do their yoga, practice mindfulness, eat nutritious foods. Mental health and wellness is a community issue that takes community effort. It’s keeping workers empowered and satisfied in their places of employment; it’s a living wage, it’s affordable health care, it’s parents having the time to spend with their children. It’s making sure that our neighbors are housed; that no one goes hungry; that we all have access to clean water. It’s taking care of the planet and neighborhoods and the air that we breathe. It’s reasonable gun control measures. Mental health care is important on the individual level, but thrives when we can do it in unity. I cannot live peacefully knowing that my neighbors and relatives do not have the same resources as me. When we make it everyone’s responsibility, we can see real change. We are all in this together.
By Jazmine Chilo, Community Health Case Manager III