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May Is Mental Health Awareness Month

Clinically Reviewed By Dan Schimmel, LCSW, CAP
Updated On

Since May 1949, an organization by the name of Mental Health America has observed every subsequent May as Mental Health Awareness month. Everyone has their own crusade in life and the catchment of mental health disorders is quite large therefore the idea of an awareness month can go unnoticed, especially with hundreds of awareness days, weeks and months that pass each year. Not to say that one is more important than the other and it should be noted that one in five Americans experience a mental health disorder in their lifetime.

Mental Health America has released a video with 5 easy to follow suggestions on how to get involved during mental health month. It’s not complex or challenging, which only increases their chance of spreading awareness to people with little to no interest in mental health disorders. Their website is chocked full of toolkits, statistics and information on how access appropriate providers and essentially everything under the sun as it relates to mental health disorders. Let’s back up for second though and see what’s behind this initiative and why it’s worthwhile.

The Facts

Although a statistic from 2006 may seem a little outdated, the expenses for mental health treatment in that year exceeded $57.5 billion. Even with all the money spent on mental health service, in 2015, there were 44,000 suicides in the United States, making it the tenth leading cause of death. Suicide is often a result of anxiety and depressive disorders. Anxiety disorders, which include but are not limited to Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Specific Phobias, Panic Disorder and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, affect 18% of the population in the United States while depressive disorders pose a 17% risk to the population. What’s more concerning is that nearly half of individuals with a depressive disorder have a co-occurring anxiety disorder.

Take that for data!

What are Mental Health Disorders?

So, all those numbers are pretty concerning. However, having knowledge of some big statistic like that does not mean we fully have an understanding of what they actually mean when it comes to people accessing mental health services. One of the foundations of mental health treatment is about the treatment provider being empathic, not sympathetic. We can easily feel bad for someone experiencing depressive or anxious symptoms but do we actually feel for that person? If you’re looking for an excellent depiction of the difference between sympathy and empathy, a research professor from the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, Brené Brown, has a light-hearted three minute video that might motivate you to move from the knowledge phase to the understanding phase.

First, let’s pretend you know nothing about mental health disorders. A manual that’s nearly as thick as War and Peace, called the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder, 5th Edition (DSM-5) defines mental disorders as:

“A mental disorder is a syndrome characterized by clinically significant disturbance in an individual’s cognition, emotion regulation, or behavior that reflects a dysfunction in the psychological, biological, or developmental processes underlying mental functioning. Mental disorders are usually associated with significant distress in social, occupational, or other important activities. An expectable or culturally approved response to a common stressor or loss, such as the death of a loved one, is not a mental disorder. Socially deviant behavior (e.g., political, religious, or sexual) and conflicts that are primarily between the individual and society are not mental disorders unless the deviance or conflict results from a dysfunction in the individual, as described above.”

Wow, that’s a mouthful and might make one think, ‘Do I have a mental health disorder that has gone undiagnosed?’. The DSM-5 is a manual used by all practitioners authorized to do so in the United States, which includes a long list of credentialed professionals that may bore you. Just know they went through several years of undergraduate and graduate studies to earn the right diagnose individuals. The manual is a work in progress since its inception in 1952 as homosexuality was considered a mental disorder until 1987 but let’s not go down that path during mental health month and focus on awareness, prevention and, ultimately, action.

How To Detect Mental Health Disorders

As the pioneers of Mental Health Month, Mental Health America has an on-line screening tool that can provide a quick screening for the following disorders:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Bipolar
  • PTSD
  • Alcohol or Substance Use
  • Psychosis
  • Eating Disorder

If the screening tool seems too clinical and isn’t for you, Mental Health America has reframed mental health symptoms as “risky business” with the following much easier to detect categories:

  • Marijuana Use
  • Sex
  • Prescription Drug Misuse
  • Internet Addiction
  • Compulsive Buying
  • Exercise Extremes

You might say, “wait, sex, how can sex be related to mental disorders?” In fact, one study found that 58% of people who struggle with compulsive sexual behavior also had major depression at some point in their lives and are at higher risk for attempting suicide. Additionally, people engaging in compulsive sexual behaviors may be experiencing a manic episode as a result of their bipolar disorder. Sex can feel good, be fun and be a healthy part of an intimate relationship however, there’s a threshold where it begins to become a coping mechanism as opposed to a way to show your love to someone.

You might say, “wait, exercise extremes, how can being healthy be related to mental disorders?” In fact, 39-48% of people who have an eating disorder also struggle with exercise addiction as they may be purging their calories after overeating. At the other end of the spectrum there’s a sedentary lifestyle, which can lead to depression and overeating to cope with the depressive symptoms. Unfortunately, mental disorders have been desensitized by Hollywood films. A trope often depicted in romantic comedies is some skinny, pretty female actress sitting on the couch watching sad movies and eating a tub of ice cream after a ‘heartbreaking event’ in her life. The problem is most women eating ice cream on their couch night after night aren’t going to be swept off their feet by Colin Firth and all of the sudden have the utmost love for themselves and every aspect of life, including that smelly gas station attendant. Depression can be a lifelong illness and no hunk of a man can solve that. Awareness, prevention and action are a must. Well, except for Bridget Jones because she’s immune to depression, anxiety and eating disorders.

Aside, from Bridget Jones’ perfect life and psyche, how can we appropriately prevent the development of mental health disorders?


Mental health disorders can be more challenging to treat after they get bad, which is why prevention, much like the ideals behind health care, can be the most effective techniques. For example, without even doing the research, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would most likely predict that an individual will develop type 2 diabetes if he or she has a Mrs. Freshley’s Honey Bun for breakfast and lunch daily.

While mental health disorders have a genetic basis, just like diabetes, it doesn’t mean an individual is doomed as their predisposition can be exacerbated by environmental factors. Many universal prevention approaches include the use of specific strategies that aim to modify their approaches based on the community’s individual characteristics. This can be accomplished by involving lawmakers, local officials and community leaders. Doing so accomplishes the goal of making broad brush strokes over an entire community as opposed to targeting individuals with their prevention strategies.

The Substance Use and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) designed a prevention program aimed to intervene early and often in communities. They have created what they call a Strategic Prevention Framework (SPF), which has the following overarching characteristics:

  • Assess prevention needs based on epidemiological data
  • Build prevention capacity
  • Develop a strategic plan
  • Implement effective community prevention programs, policies, and practices
  • Evaluate efforts for outcomes

While the SPF program is meant to address substance use in communities, we must keep in mind that those with mental health disorders are twice as likely to develop a substance use problem. So, let’s take a look at another program for which SAMHSA received funding to distribute to eligible communities and that is more directed toward mental health risk.

SAMHSA designed a program called Project AWARE.

Before we get into the details about Project AWARE, think about the person or people that, outside of parental figures, have the most contact with youth. If you said the school system, you guessed correctly. Project AWARE can offer state grants to schools that will increase teachers’ ability to be more aware of symptoms of mental health disorders through a Mental Health First Aid program.

The Mental Health First Aid program’s website description is as follows:

“Mental Health First Aid is an 8-hour course that introduces participants to risk factors and warning signs of mental health concerns, builds understanding of their impact, and overviews common treatments. The course uses role-playing and simulations to demonstrate how to assess a mental health crisis; select interventions and provide initial help; and connect persons to professional, peer and social supports as well as self-help resources.

Mental Health First Aid allows for early detection and intervention by teaching participants about the signs and symptoms of specific illnesses like anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, eating disorders, and addictions. The program offers concrete tools and answers key questions like “What can I do?” and “Where can someone find help?” Participants are introduced to local mental health resources, national organizations, support groups, and online tools for mental health and addictions treatment and support.”

One 8-hour course for teachers and other staff members could save a life either in the moment or prevent the onset of a serious mental health disorder. SAMHSA has several other programs and grants they’ve rolled out to increase mental health awareness and their fighting a battle before it becomes a war.

Next Steps

While it’s fun to call people “crazy” or “bipolar” when they’re acting a little strange or do something embarrassing during times of distress, it’s important to maintain awareness of how many people are actually affected by mental health disorders on a daily basis. As indicated earlier, 1 in 5 people experience a mental health disorder at some point in their life. When a friend of family member’s behavior changes drastically over a short or even long period of time, it’s a cause for concern and you should look for some of the rapid indicators listed in herein and talk to a friend or family member about helping that person locate a mental health provider.

All too often it’s easy to dismiss the behavior of individuals as a cultural phenomenon. For example, if your friend takes twenty selfies a day to post on social media, he or she may be experiencing the early onset of internet addiction or body dysmorphic disorder or both! It’s not up to us to diagnose those individuals though. It is up to us to reach out to that person if he or she is exhibiting signs of a mental health disorder and approach the person with empathy, not sympathy.

Mental health disorders are constantly manifesting right under our noses on a daily basis and they know no bounds as they can affect your mother, father, doctor, lawyer and even that friendly gas station attendant. Just because of someone’s perceived position of power or inferiority it doesn’t mean he or she doesn’t experience mental pain in a similar way as you. If we want Mental Health Month to extend beyond awareness then we need to keep our eyes peeled and demonstrate some level care for those around us because, whether we believe it or not, they shape us, our world and our future.

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