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Talking About Mental Illness: A Conversation That Can Save a Life

October 26, 2016

People living with mental illness and clinical depression often suffer in silence without receiving the care they need. They may feel alone, ashamed, or hopeless, and they may fear that giving voice to these feelings means they will be misunderstood, unfairly judged, or perceived as a burden.

Only 25 percent of those with a mental illness feel others are sympathetic to their condition, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Society’s negative stereotypes about mental illness still exist, and that harmful stigma leaves many ashamed to talk about dark or difficult feelings that are impacting, or even endangering, their lives. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for Americans aged 15 to 24.

Mental illness is more common than many realize. In a given year, as many as 1 in 5 Americans suffers from clinical depression, an anxiety disorder, or another potentially serious mental health challenge, according to the National Association on Mental Illness (NAMI). While these are generally treatable conditions, the reality is that many will not seek the care or support they desperately need. By challenging misperceptions and harmful stereotypes about those living with mental health disorders, we can begin to change our culture and empower the people we love to seek life-changing treatment.

October is Mental Health Screening Month, a time designated to help each other become more aware that symptoms related to our emotional and mental well-being can be treated. All of us experience varying levels of sadness and anxiety, but when these feelings become so overwhelming that they interfere with daily life, that’s when a conversation with a trusted family member, friend or health care professional can make all the difference. Each of us can potentially save a life by showing compassion and helping a loved one understand that it takes courage to seek help – and we see that courage in them.

It is particularly important that teenagers and young people who are struggling have access to mental health screenings. One-half of all mental illnesses start by age 14, and 75 percent manifest by age 24, according to the American Psychiatric Association.

Some early warning signs include apathy, withdrawal from social activities, difficulty thinking clearly, mood changes, nervousness, aggression, or a sudden and unexplained drop in productivity. If you notice any of these behaviors in a family member or friend, don’t stay silent. Offer compassion, initiate a conversation, and volunteer to go with them to see someone. Mental health parity laws require insurers to cover mental health checkups and treatment the same as they do for a person’s physical health.

The brain is the most important and complicated organ in the human body. Sometimes, a mental health provider will prescribe an FDA-approved medicine to treat psychological conditions rooted in a chemical imbalance or neurological impairment. The biopharmaceutical industry has made significant strides in developing antidepressants and other psychopharmacological medications to treat a range of conditions from mood disorders to psychosis. These treatments have improved millions of lives and reduced untold pain.

While medication alone cannot cure mental illness, it can address debilitating symptoms and help people who are suffering lead happier, safer and more productive lives. Those who are prescribed medication for a mental health disorder – especially those dealing with a serious condition such as bipolar disease or severe clinical depression – must maintain regular visits with a therapist or trained mental health professional, as their regimens may urgently need to be modified during a major depressive episode.

Currently, there are 135 medicines in the development pipeline with the potential to treat everything from depression to schizophrenia to addictive disorders. Promising research is also under way to identify biomarkers that will improve diagnoses and better assess how different patients might respond to different therapies.

We can all be part of the solution: Helping to change the cultural conversation on how mental illness is viewed in our society – and helping to start individual conversations with our loved ones who may need help – could be among the kindest and most meaningful acts we ever do.

Editors Note: Greenwood began his career as a social worker for children with mental health challenges and intellectual disabilities.