Friday, Oct. 10 marks World Mental Health Day -- and calls attention to an important topic that deserves more attention. As a psychologist, I'm thrilled to witness the change in society's perceptions of mental illness. Whether you consciously realize it or not, the conversation about emotional well-being has never been louder or stronger. The term "mindfulness" has crept into public discourse and become a subtle code for the importance of mental health as a mainstream topic. After Time magazine's cover story "The Mindful Revolution" put a megaphone on this growing movement, more people than ever are embracing mental wellness in a way that we hadn't seen in quite some time, if ever. I personally have witnessed it my own practice. When new patients call for an appointment, they specifically ask for help with happiness and balance. They seek guidance for living in the present and feeling more passion for life.
While many people yearn for well-being, fewer people understand what having a mental illness really means or even looks like. The state of your mind hasn't always received the same amount of airtime as your body's health. When your body is sick, it tells us. It bruises, bleeds, creeks or coughs. Things go wrong with the "plumbing." Illness is quantifiable. The number on the thermometer spikes and makes you stay in bed. The number on your lab report goes dangerously high or abnormally low. Mental health, however, is a different story. The state of your mind is not apparent to the world and has never been treated with the same understanding or compassion.
Mental disorders include severe illnesses like schizophrenia and bipolar disorders that show up in brain scans, as well as common anxiety disorders, which are suffered by 40 million Americans. Anxiety disorders are the panics attacks or OCDs you might see dramatized on television or movies. They include post-traumatic stress disorder, which you might experience after a motor vehicle accident, natural disaster, war or rape. They can be a phobia of riding in an elevator or flying on a plan, which prevents you from a career change or travelling with your family. People may suffer from generalized anxiety, which is an intense worry about things that can go wrong that keeps them up at night.
Why do mental health problems occur in the first place? They may be caused by an imbalance in neurotransmitters (serotonin, dopamine, and neuroepinephrine) in the brain. They may be due to trauma, neglect, genetics or the intense stress of modern life. Most often, the cause is a complex combination of these factors. What is clear is that mental health problems are more widespread than has ever been understood or admitted.
My personal mission is to lessen the stigma around mental health by educating people about what it means. I encourage you to participate in this mental health movement. You can start by putting your emotional wellbeing on your to-do list: see a therapist, read a book or join a support group. Second, listen to your mind and soul the way you listen to your body when it's hurt. It may not complain as loudly, so listen carefully.
The unsung heroes of the mental health field need more help to provide treatment and support networks for people suffering with mental illness.
Support organizations that contribute to mental health causes, such as The Hope and Grace Initiative.
Have a story about mental illness that you'd like to share? Email email@example.com, or give us a call at (860) 348-3376, and you can record your story in your own words. Please be sure to include your name and phone number.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.