May is National Mental Health Awareness Month.
Pandemic life has been stressful, and none of us would be surprised to hear that mental illnesses—such as anxiety, depression and others—are being reported at significantly higher rates for all ages. Alarmingly, reports of suicidal ideation are also at an all-time high, according to Mental Health America.
My colleagues and I have seen a twenty percent increase in appointments during the pandemic. Unfortunately, past experience tells us only half of those affected by mental illness receive treatment. Often, this is because of the stigma attached to mental illness, but inability to pay, lack of providers and other factors also contribute.
What Exactly is a Mental Illness?
A mental illness is a physical illness of the brain causing disturbances in thinking, behavior, energy or emotion, making it difficult to cope with the ordinary demands of life. Research is starting to uncover the complicated causes of these diseases which can include genetics, brain chemistry, brain structure, experiencing trauma and/or having another medical condition, like heart disease.
The two most common mental health conditions are anxiety disorders and mood disorders.
Pre-COVID, the number of adults reporting symptoms of an anxiety disorder was 18%. Between August and December of 2020, the number of adults reporting anxiety symptoms rose 5.5%, according to the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The greatest increase was in individuals ages 18 to 29.
Anxiety disorders include:
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
- Panic disorder (panic attacks)
- Generalized anxiety disorder
- Specific phobias
Fears connected to COVID-19, current events, financial problems, loosing someone to death, loneliness, and isolation are commonly reported as contributing to people's stress and anxiety.
Mood disorders are characterized by difficulties regulating one's mood. Depression and bipolar depression affected nearly 10% of adults each year prior to the pandemic. The CDC reports the number of people experiencing symptoms of depression rose 5.7% between August and December of 2020.
What You Can Do to Help
Although the general perception of mental illness has improved over the past decades, studies show mental illness stigmas are still powerful. These perceptions are fueled largely by media stereotypes, lack of education, and people's tendency to attach negative stigmas to mental health conditions at a far higher rate than for other diseases and disabilities (such as cancer, diabetes or heart disease).
In addition to hindering people from seeking treatment, stigma also affects the number of resources available for proper treatment. Stigma and misinformation can feel like overwhelming obstacles for someone who is struggling with a mental health condition. Here a few powerful things you can do to help:
Ask Good Questions
Giving people a safe space to be honest and admit they are struggling is an important step in normalizing mental health issues and connecting those who are struggling to treatment resources. If you know someone who appears to be anxious, sad, withdrawn or lacking motivation, let them know you are concerned and ask them how they are doing.
Show Respect and Acceptance
Having people see you as an individual and not as your illness can make the biggest difference for someone who is struggling with their mental health. For example, we would never refer to someone diagnosed with cancer as, "they're cancer." Yet, it is common to talk about people struggling with depression as, "they're depressed."
Learn More About Mental Health
A better understanding can lead to providing better support to those affected in our families and communities. The information available about mental health is expanding exponentially. Daily, research is uncovering the physical mechanics of mental illnesses and promising treatments are being developed. Individuals are also feeling more empowered to share their stories.
Some great sources for mental health news and information include:
Advocate Within Your Circles of Influence
Speaking up, sharing facts instead of myths about mental illness, and keeping these dialogues going can help to ensure individuals with a mental illness have the same rights and opportunities as other members of your church, school, place of work, peer groups and community.
Jean Holthaus, LMSW, LISW has been providing outpatient therapy services since 1995 when she earned her Masters of Social Work degree from the University of Iowa. She has worked for Pine Rest since 1997. She currently serves as manager of the Telehealth Clinic and the Hastings Clinic and is also a Pine Rest Outpatient Regional Director.
Courtesy of Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services.
Photo courtesy of Getty Images/fstop123.