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Awareness!

And Awareness is what we have been focusing on this past month, as President Obama signed a proclamation declaring May as National Mental Health Awareness Month (the first president to do so!) Mental health was prominently featured in the media -- including personal stories that were inspiring, a DSM-5 debate challenging us to reconsider the way we diagnose mental illness and a special mental health conference initiated by the President at the White House. Progress is being made.

So why is awareness so important? When it comes to mental health as a neuroscience, we still don't fully understand the brain and behavior. As a society we have difficulty accepting these challenges which affect every single family. Denial, grief, trauma and shame are just a few of the forces that interfere with our viewing mental health in the same proactive way that we approach our cholesterol levels or heart health.

Can we really afford to keep our heads buried in the sand? If we are educated and aware we can reduce or eliminate pain, and intervene at the onset of symptoms instead of waiting for a full blown (and potentially life threatening) crisis to occur. Early identification and proper care can lead to complete health, mind and body, it can save lives.

As a child in the 1970's, I was struggling with mental health challenges when awareness was all but non-existent. In retrospect, I see that I could have been diagnosed with a mood disorder. I remember the concern from my parents and teachers when at seven years old, I would often cry for no reason. However, no one ever thought to seek treatment. A few years later when I had anxiety attacks that were severe enough to result in hives, the concern and love was there but, again -- no professional help. Even with excellent health insurance and my mother working in a related field as a guidance counselor, proper treatment was not available to me due to the lack of basic knowledge in the area of brain health. Awareness might have led to the prevention of the life threatening mental health crisis I had when I was seventeen. The warning signs were there, but without the understanding of my invisible disorder, I ended up in a hospital weighing seventy something pounds and suffering from anorexia and depression that led to a suicide attempt.

The other area of awareness where we are in the dark is in making the connection between what we know about genetics and mental illness. I was adopted and even with my challenges as a child, I never thought to ask my biological parents about any family history of mental illness. Of course, I inquired about cancer, diabetes and every other "real" physical illness. It took proper education before I knew that there was more to understand about my health history. Eventually, I asked and it was helpful to learn that I have mental illness on both sides of my family. This was reassuring as it brought into high resolution for me the challenges I had as a child and enables me to be proactive and responsive as a parent to my own son's development. As the old adage goes, "Knowledge is power."

While we have made tremendous progress in becoming more open and educated about brain disorders, we still have a long way to go. The headline news last week that James Holmes' insanity plea was rejected was evidence that better education and understanding are urgently needed. James Holmes was under the care of a medical doctor and the state of his rapidly disintegrating mental health had his psychiatrist concerned enough to notify the University of Colorado authorities about his instability and potential danger to himself and others. Just yesterday this decision was overturned and his plea of insanity was accepted. But James Holmes and his family still have the possibility of the death penalty looming over them. This young PhD student was in treatment for a medical illness. How can we justify this possible sentence? Last night I had dinner with Mental Health Law Professor, Elyn Saks of the USC Gould School of Law and I asked her to explain the legalities to me on this case. She had no answers.

National mental health awareness month is officially over. On this early day in June, I call on all of us to declare that everyday is mental health awareness day! Let's become more aware of such crucial components as stress levels, mood stability and our DNA, in every second, every minute and every breath leading to healthy choices, open conversations and care. Lets wake up and bring awareness to our brain health and the brain health of our loved ones. This is serious business and we must confront and overcome our state of numbness and paralysis around these issues. Lets commit to prevention through awareness, which can lead to early detection and life saving intervention.

The time is NOW! Actually, it was yesterday.

For more information about our work at the Flawless Foundation in children's mental health, please visit our website www.flawlessfoundation.org