May is Mental Health Awareness Month.
At the beginning of 2020, no one could have predicted where we are now: in the middle of a worldwide health crisis, the coronavirus pandemic. Our physical health and wellbeing are front and center in everyone’s mind, which is critical for getting the pandemic under control. Everyone is doing their best to mitigate the impact of the virus while following shelter-in-place orders and social distancing guidelines.
But physical health and wellbeing aren’t the only things we worry about. The isolation and uncertainty related to almost every aspect of the COVID-19 has mental health professionals – and many members of the general public – concerned about the impact of coronavirus on our mental health and wellbeing. Not the impact of the physical illness caused by the virus on our mental health, but rather, the impact of our response. We worry – correction, we’re proactively concerned – about the toll social distancing, shelter-in-place orders, and business closings have on our mental health.
Mental Health During COVID-19
There has never been a more appropriate time to raise awareness about mental health. Which is the entire purpose of Mental Health Awareness Month. This year – the 70th anniversary of Mental Health Awareness Month – the advocacy group Mental Health America (MHA) will focus on two primary goals:
- Sharing their comprehensive, helpful, and informative mental health awareness resource Tools 2 Thrive . On social media, MHA refers to this as #tools2thrive.
- Reaching their ambitious goal of reducing stigma around mental health disorders and mental health treatment by recruiting one million people to take a free mental health screening during the month of May. On social media, MHA refers to this as #MillionInMay.
If you want to get involved, click the links above and get started posting and sharing the stickers, gifs, posters, and hashtags MHA provides. There’s something there for everyone. Before you do that, though, you can read the rest of this article.
We’ll talk briefly about the stigma around mental health in the U.S., then offer general mental health statistics and information on COVID-related mental health issues. Finally, we’ll give a brief rundown on the basic tools MHA promotes in their Tools 2 Thrive Toolkit.
Ending Mental Health Stigma in the U.S.
It’s important for everyone to recognize there’s no shame in having a mental health problem. We all struggle with mental or emotional issues at some point during our lives, whether those issues are with self-esteem, stress, sadness, loneliness, anger, anxiety, or depression. Some of us experience a combination of all of them.
When you struggle with emotions, it’s always best to talk to someone. We all know that. Talking helps. Getting help for an emotional or mood disorder is no different. It’s advanced talking to someone. It’s talking to someone who’s an expert in helping people with the issue you face. Nothing makes more sense than that. Getting help for a mental health disorder is also no different than getting help with a physical issue. When something goes wrong, you see doctor. When you find out exactly what’s wrong, you see a specialist.
That’s exactly how mental health treatment works. First, you get a screening. If your screening indicates an underlying mental health issue, then you receive a referral to a specialist. It’s simple. There’s no reason for shame or embarrassment, and there’s no reason to avoid treatment when it’s recommended by a mental health professional.
Mental Health Statistics
It’s easy to get lost in the weeds when talking mental health facts and figures. To avoid that, we’ll focus on the big picture: statistics on people diagnosed with any mental illness at all, regardless of category or severity.
Here are the numbers for adults in the U.S. based on data collected by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) in 2017.
Any Mental Illness: Prevalence in Adults 18 +
- 46.6 million adults were diagnosed with a mental illness
- That’s about 20% of the adult population of the country
- Mental illness was more common among men than women:
- Women: 22.3%
- Men: 15.1%
- Young adults (18-25) had the highest age-group prevalence of mental illness, at 25.8%
- Adults (26-49) had the second highest age-group prevalence of mental illness, at 22.2%
- Older adults (50 +) had the third highest age-group prevalence of mental illness, at 13.8%
Any Mental Illness: Prevalence of Adults 18 + Who Received Treatment
- 19.8 million adults diagnosed with a mental illness received treatment for that illness
- That’s 42.3% – meaning that 57.7% of people with a mental illness did not receive treatment for that mental illness
- More women received treatment for their mental illness than men
- Women: 47.6%
- Men: 34.8%
- Young adults with mental illness had the lowest age-group treatment percentage, at 38.4%
- Adults with mental illness had the second lowest age-group treatment percentage, at 43.3%
- Older adults had the highest age-group treatment percentage, at 44.2%
Let’s talk about those numbers for a moment before we move on.
First, the difference between the number of people diagnosed with a mental illness and the number of people who received treatment for their mental illness is called the treatment gap. The data suggests that in 2017, over twenty million people in the U.S. diagnosed with a mental illness did not receive treatment. That’s why Mental Health Awareness Month is so important.
Despite all our efforts, there’s still a strong stigma against treatment.
Mental Health and COVID-19
The coronavirus pandemic is the source of a great deal of stress for the entire country right now. It’s all justified. There are scores of reasons COVID-19 increases stress. The people at Mental Health America (MHA) point out the following primary causes of concern. People are worried about:
- Getting sick
- Their loved ones getting sick
- Unintentionally passing the virus to a vulnerable individual
- Adjusting to life under shelter-in-place orders
- Adjusting to virtual school and work
- Financial hardship
- Not being able to connect with family
- Running out of food, water, and common household supplies
Those concerns are all real, and all valid. MHA offers practical advice about these worries: realize what you can control, and let go of what you can’t. Things they point out that you can control include:
- Your mind and body. You can eat well, get enough sleep, and get plenty of exercise.
- Your environment. You can control who comes and goes in your home, where you go, and the health precaution you take at home and when you go out
- Things you consume. You can control the news you watch and the information you read. Tip – listen to the health experts at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO), and take everything else with a grain of salt
The list of things you can’t control is virtually endless. Suffice it to say that you can’t control what anyone else does or says. Nor can you determine when we’ll discover a vaccine or when things will return back to normal. In fact, no one really knows what the new normal will look like. Until then, we practice controlling what we can and letting go of what we can’t: easy to say, everyone’s challenge to do.
Mental Health Awareness Month: Tools 2 Thrive
It’s easy to talk about mental health, but it’s not always easy to handle psychological and emotional problems when they arise. As part of Mental Health Awareness Month 2020, the people at Mental Health America created a list of five things that everyone can do to support strong mental health:
1. Own the feelings.
The ability to recognize, identify, and talk about your feelings is the first step toward managing the most difficult ones.
2. Find the positive.
The best way to do this is to make a list of the things in life for which you are grateful. Positivity will follow from gratitude – we promise.
3. Connect with others.
During this time of isolation and social distance, it’s important to reach out to family, friends, and peers via telephone, messaging, or video chat. Social contact can lift your spirits, and sometimes, having a real heart-to-heart with a friend can make all the difference.
4. Eliminate toxic influences.
This is a time when you can identify the things in your life that are toxic, and remove them from your life, one by one. This includes toxic people, toxic habits, and toxic patterns of thought.
5. Create healthy routines.
The COVID lockdown means most of us have extra time on our hands – and we need to fill that time with things that support mental health. This is a great time to start small and build on incremental, daily successes. You can do this with food, exercise, sleep habits, and media consumption, all of which can either support or undermine mental health. Make proactive choices to create routines that support positive mental health, and leave the routines that undermine mental health behind, along with all the things you deemed toxic.
How You Can Help Raise Awareness
You can join the MHA movement on a personal level by incorporating the #Tools2Thrive into your daily life. You can join the MHA movement as an advocate by visiting the Mental Health Awareness Website, downloading their citizen media toolkit, (in case you missed the link above) and sharing at least one sticker, post, or mental health awareness message every day.
Imagine: if one post you make, one new habit you choose, or one positive conversation you initiate can ease the suffering of only one person – even if that person is you – then you’re part of the solution.
Welcome to the movement.
Angus is a writer from Atlanta, GA who writes about behavioral health, adolescent development, education, and mindfulness practices like yoga, tai chi, and meditation.