Bringing Awareness to Mental Health

By Sarah Saffold, LSW, LMSW

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. To honor it, here is a brief history of how our understanding of mental health has changed over the years.

Mental Health Awareness Month started in 1949. Before then, society looked at mental health from a disease model, rather than a holistic model. Society missed the larger societal factors and inequalities that made mental health challenges more prevalent for certain populations than others. We tended to only look at individual factors, so a lot of stigma was placed on someone who struggled with mental health. 

The mental health field also struggled to get the funding needed to conduct research in the same way that physical health research received it. Because of the lack of research, the stigma around mental health challenges only continued as there were no proper medications to manage certain disorders. As a result, those who struggled the most were placed in asylums and labeled as “insane” or “lunatics.” Once funding for mental health research became more secure, proper medications were made readily available to treat and stabilize the symptoms patients were experiencing. Because of this, patients progressed and could re-introduce themselves into society.

Slowly, society listened to the mental health struggles of actual, everyday people who were just like them. They realized that having a mental illness or symptoms wasn’t something to fear and it was okay to talk about it in the open. During the 2000s, mental health talk shifted into something every single person should be discussing as a part of being a whole, healthy, well rounded person. Society also saw a shift in focus from “being mentally ill” to “being mentally well.”

Although positive changes have been made, there is still a lot of work to do. This is why mental health awareness is so important. Mental health illnesses are common and very treatable, and this treatment contributes to a holistic model of wellness. By being able to recognize the signs of mental health symptoms, we can learn to ask for help much more quickly.

During the pandemic, society dealt with more mental health symptoms than ever before. This has helped us to talk more openly about feelings of sadness, isolation, disconnection, anxiety, and low mood. Together, the world experienced a collective hit to our mental health, and this humanized these struggles for us. We learned that getting help was an amazing thing to do for oneself. 

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), mental illnesses are very prevalent. About 17.3 million adults in the United States had at least one major depressive episode. On average, 31.1% of adults will experience an anxiety disorder at some time in their lives. Nearly 7.9 million adults have co-occurring mental health and addiction disorders. These numbers can be even higher for those in marginalized groups because of the many disparities in access to care and other factors.

We all need to do regular check-ins on our mental health and create awareness to assess how we are doing. Whether that’s going to therapy, seeing a psychiatrist or simply asking ourselves “what feelings did I experience today and how intense were they?,” we deserve to show ourselves compassion, caring and kindness when it comes to our mental health. By sharing our own experiences, struggles and successes, it paves the way for others to do the same- therefore reducing stigma and creating awareness.

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