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Mental Illness Awareness Week – What it is & Why it’s Needed

Editor Dan Schimmel, LCSW, CAP
Created On
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It was 1990 when the US Congress declared the first full week of October as Mental Illness Awareness Week or MIAW. It was the effort of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) that was recognized officially by our government, and very soon we will be upon our twenty-ninth annual MIAW. This year, 2019, Mental Illness Awareness Week is from October 6th until October 12th.

Yes, this article discusses what MIAW is all about, but we want this article to leave you more informed as to why something like Mental Illness Awareness Week is a necessity. Every year, there is a theme associated with MIAW, and this year’s theme is ‘Cure Stigma’. So, before we get into the National Alliance on Mental Illness and MIAW, let’s discuss stigma and why it stinks.

 

The stigma of the Mentally Ill

 

The word ‘stigma’ comes from the Greek word for a mark made by some sort of pointed instrument. Nowadays, the word (according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary) means “a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person.” Here are some examples…

Thinking that homeless people choose to live in such a way is a stigma. Many homeless people try every day to get back to normal life. If you find out that someone has been to jail and you automatically assume they are a bad person, that is a stigma. Innocent people are jailed often, and also there are many non-violent and victimless ways to end up in the slammer. 

You get the idea, right? Well, a horrible stigma that exists in today’s society is the stigma of thinking that mentally ill people can just ‘snap out of it’ or that they just need to focus more or try harder. Time for a reality check. According to NAMI, about one out of every five American adults (approx. 44 million) experience mental illness within one year’s time. ONE OUT OF FIVE. Here are some more wake-up calls provided by NAMI:

  • Depression is the world’s leading cause of disability.
  • Nine out of ten suicide victims had suffered from at least one mental illness.
  • About one out of four homeless Americans have a mental illness. The same goes for prisoners. 
  • 1% of US adults suffer from schizophrenia, 2.5% from bipolar, and 7% from clinical depression.
  • Annually, 10 million US adults suffer from severe mental illness that worsens everyday life for them. The same number of American adults suffer from co-existing mental illnesses, having two or more at once.

Mental illnesses include but are not limited to substance addiction, anxiety, eating disorders, bipolar, manic depression, clinical depression, postpartum depression, panic disorder, schizophrenia, PTSD, seasonal affective disorder, insomnia, narcolepsy, Tourette’s syndrome, ADD, ADHD, and autism. There are many more, but these are among the more common mental illnesses diagnosed in the United States.

We are willing to bet all of Fort Knox that you know someone who has been affected by one of the mental illnesses listed above. Think about that person and his or her illness. Think about how hard everyday life must be with that type of suffering. Add on top of that the social stigma that the mentally ill are somehow lesser than those without mental illness. This ladies and gentlemen is why something like Mental Illness Awareness Week is a necessity.

 

(National Alliance on Mental Illness & Mental Illness Awareness Week)

 

So, as you’ve learned, NAMI’s efforts were recognized by Congress in 1990 which birthed MIAW. Sorry for all the acronyms. Here is what MIAW is all about, according to its website: “We believe that mental health conditions are important to discuss year-round, but highlighting them during Mental Illness Awareness Week provides a dedicated time for mental health advocates across the country to come together as one unified voice.”

On the website linked above, toward the bottom of the page, there is a multitude of ways to actively participate in MIAW. You can donate, share a story, start a talk, create a fundraiser, or even become an official NAMI mental health advocate. As wonderful as options such as those on the site are, the real work is done by each and every one of us. The real work is done at home. 

If you truly do not know of anyone in your life who suffers from a mental illness, then perhaps your efforts are best made through NAMI directly. However, if you do know someone (and chances are you do), why don’t you start by giving them a phone call? You don’t have to immediately start telling them how bad you feel. Just talk to them. Show them some love. If possible, work into the conversation that you want to be there for him of her, but try not to be pushy. Definitely don’t be aggressive. Don’t say something like, “Well I know you’re feeling crazy and I want to help you.” 

There is a balance between being overly attentive, or too nice, and being inattentive or mean. For instance, if you happen upon someone in a public situation who you know to be afflicted with some type of mental illness, just be polite. Strike up a normal conversation. Nobody wants to be treated differently. Yet some people might need a “Good morning!” more than others. It’s part of our unwritten human duty to be kind to others – all others.

 

A Story for Perspective

 

The following is a true story and you can bet that I teared up while writing it. I have changed the names of people and places – but that is all. It was 2009 and I was working at a bagel shop. One of my coworkers, Drew, was afflicted with Asperger’s syndrome. This is a condition on the autism scale that affects the ability to effectively socialize or communicate. Drew was also simultaneously affected with a minor birth disorder, causing some small but noticeable skeletal deformity. 

All the employees of the bagel shop loved Drew and treated him kindly, but the customers didn’t always speak so kindly to him or about him. Sometimes Drew would struggle in some minor way with his job function, and every once in a while, some ignorant customers would verbally abuse him. Sometimes the customer would mutter it out loud to nobody, and sometimes the customer would say it directly to Drew – completely unacceptable either way. 

One time on a break, I made it a point to take Drew aside and speak with him. I told him how upset the customers made me when they spoke badly about him, and how badly he surely felt since he was the target of the abuse. I must have spoken for a good minute, minute and a half, all about how I’m on his side and if he wanted me to say something to anyone I would. Then when I was done, he said something that blew me away. I don’t remember exactly what he said, but it went something like:

“Hey, I appreciate that! I really do. But I don’t let it bother me. If I did, it would just get in the way.”

It’s not that I was expecting him to say thanks and walk away. It wasn’t that I was fishing for respect or a compliment or anything of the sort. I just wanted to express how it made me feel, and he replied by saying he doesn’t feel it at all. It really stuck with me, and to this day the real-life Drew and I are friends on Facebook and will occasionally comment on each other’s posts. 

There are two morals to this story, in my opinion. One is major and one is minor. The first and major moral to my story concerns the theme of this year’s Mental Illness Awareness Week, curing the stigma. Idiotic customers who would insult Drew were acting under the stigma that the mentally ill are lesser than us. In fact, Drew was by far the smartest person within a 500-foot radius of that bagel shop at all times. So, the main moral of the story is to break that silly stigma about the mentally ill and realize that they are people, human beings, just like us. 

The second and minor moral to the story comes from what Drew said in response to me. He realized already in life that no matter how hard you try to get people to break their stigmas, it’s never going to work 100 percent. There will always be people who belittle the mentally ill out of ignorance and/or stigma. Drew understood that not he should not and would not allow these people to negatively affect him. The same should go for anyone with any mental illness. I’m not saying to ‘toughen up.’ I’m just saying that the world can be mean, so brace yourself like Drew did and does.

 

In Conclusion (The Big Fight)

 

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) is a grassroots organization, which means it “uses the people in a given district, region, or community as the basis for a political or economic movement,” as quoted from Wikipedia. In the case of NAMI, the community is the entire country. What is now the leading organization on mental health began as a group of families gathering over dinner in 1979. 

NAMI is the ultimate source for all things related to mental health. When it comes to fighting the big fight, NAMI is on the frontlines. There are literally thousands of US communities that offer education programs through NAMI State Organizations and Affiliates. NAMI also advocated politically for the rights of those with mental illness. They offer a helpline for advice, questions or feedback, and of course, they host events such as Mental Health Awareness Week. You can even text ‘NAMI’ to 741741 for immediate help. 

Throughout all of this, NAMI firmly believes that the big fight is fought by all of us, on a personal level, day by day. Treat everyone with equality and kindness. Reach out to those who may be mentally ill (provided it is socially acceptable/comfortable). Also, be sure to remove any stigma you may have about the mentally ill. In other words, stop buying into any of the following… these are MYTHS:

  • Those with a mental illness are ‘crazy’ and are unsafe to society.
  • Depressed people need to just find something that makes them happy.
  • Addiction is a lifestyle.
  • The mentally ill are not as intelligent as the mentally healthy.
  • The mentally ill will never get better.

These are all false! Mental illness will not necessarily prevent you from otherwise normal life. Depression makes everything seem glum, addiction is a disease, and the mentally ill are both intelligent and curable. Also, be aware that discrimination against the mentally ill is a form of stigma. It is incredibly unfair to make any assumptions based on someone’s mental status. 

It’s your job to eliminate the stigma. Get started today. 


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