May is Mental Health Awareness Month, a time to raise awareness and reduce the stigma surrounding mental health. It is a time to discuss the importance of mental health and well-being.
Mental Health Awareness Month was started in 1949 to support individuals with mental illness and educate the public on the importance of behavioral health. Throughout May, organizations join forces to shine a spotlight on mental health and well-being to fight the stigma associated with mental illness.
While it's essential to highlight mental health during May, we must continue fostering an open dialogue about mental health all year long. Especially important is calling attention to the youth mental health crisis and coming together to find sustainable, affordable, accessible, and equitable solutions.
Why youth mental health matters
What is mental health, and why does it matter? How does it affect youth? Per the CDC, mental health encompasses our emotional, psychological, and social well-being, influencing how we think, feel, and act. It helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, feel about ourselves and our lives, and make healthy choices. Mental health is vital at every stage of life and mental health and physical health are equally important for an individual's overall well-being.
Youth mental health right now is in crisis. A problem that has been steadily growing for decades has now reached a boiling point, with 44% of youth experiencing persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness and 19.9% having seriously considered suicide.
Improving youth mental health will require a steadfast commitment to solutions that improve access to care and connectedness. But interventions alone will not suffice. Conversations about mental health must become more commonplace to reduce the stigma and increase awareness. Open conversations are what will drive young people to seek support.
The more we normalize talking about mental health and the more we advocate for services and solutions, the more lasting change and improvement in outcomes we will see.
What mental health awareness looks like
Mental health awareness probably means something different to every person you ask. To us at Hazel Health, it means fostering an understanding and open dialogue around:
- What mental health is and the prevalence of mental health challenges
- The stigma that exists and how it affects youth well-being and access to care
- How mental health affects an individual's overall health, academic outcomes, sense of self and feelings about their life
- The barriers to mental health treatment and support including how social determinants of health impact access
- The resources and interventions that are currently available to support youth
Normalizing mental health and combating stigma
A key pillar of mental health awareness is reducing stigma against people with mental health challenges. Stigma refers to the negative stereotypes that people hold about mental illness, as well as the discriminatory behaviors that the stigmas perpetuate.
For young people, this can include beliefs that they are simply moody, acting out for attention, or that their struggles are not legitimate. Additionally, stigmas can perpetuate the idea that youth with mental health challenges are prone to being violent or disruptive. This disproportionately affects youth and adults in communities of color.
Stigma causes young people to feel ashamed and can prevent them from seeking the help they need. Stigmas force young people into secrecy, to experience their challenges alone.
Talking about mental health is one way to combat stigma – when a young person knows someone else with a mental health challenge, when they realize they are not alone in what they’re experiencing, they are more likely to talk about what they’re going through. Seeking support becomes less scary.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) provides recommendations to help reduce the stigma of mental illness:
- Talk openly about mental health with friends, family, and peers. Be a leader in fostering an open dialogue.
- Educate yourself and others by responding to misconceptions or negative comments by sharing facts and experiences.
- Be conscious of language and remind people that words matter.
- Encourage equality between physical and mental illness – draw comparisons to how they would treat someone with cancer or diabetes.
- Show compassion for those with mental illness.
- Be honest about treatment and normalize mental health treatment, just like other health care treatment.
- Let the media know when they are using language that presents mental illness in a stigmatizing way.
- Choose empowerment over shame, sharing “I fight stigma by choosing to …"