Normalizing Talks About Mental Health and Mental Illness

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. It was first celebrated as Mental Health Week in 1949 and created by former mental health patient Clifford W. Beers, who many refer to as “the founder of the American mental health movement.” This month offers each of us an opportunity to increase the awareness of mental health and wellness for ourselves and others. It’s also a wonderful time to celebrate the successes on the road to mental health. 

Ending the Stigma

While mental illness is not judged the same way it was in the early part of the 20th century, social exclusion and prejudices toward the mentally ill haven’t completely gone by the wayside, says Jamie Gunning, licensed marriage and family therapist and owner of SoulCare in Orlando.

According to Gunning, the American spirit of independence and the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” ideal continues to fuel many negative stereotypes associated with mental illness.

“There’s a stigma that having a mental illness is a sign of weakness. Yet we don’t put that same kind of shame on someone who has type 1 diabetes or cancer,” Gunning says. “It’s getting better, but we still have some work to do to make mental illness a less emotionally charged issue and mental health care simply a part of our overall well being.”

Joseph Noecker, licensed mental health counselor and founder of Center for Self Balance in Winter Park says that mental health should be important to everyone because anyone can experience a mental health issue, if not a mental illness. “We perceive everything in our lives through our minds. So even if everything is going right in your life, if your mental health is out of balance, you can interpret your experience as ‘negative.’ This can affect your relationships, your work, and your physical health. And it goes beyond that. Our individual mental health contributes to the collective mental health and wellbeing of our community and world as a whole,” Noecker says.

Talk About It

Gunning says she’s happy to see young people making mental health a priority. “Gen Zers like to have a therapist to check in with every once in a while. Maybe it’s because their role models—athletes, musicians, actors and actresses, and social media influencers are more open about their own mental health.”

Regardless of their age, many people find talking about how they’re feeling difficult. That may be because they aren’t sure how they are feeling. Mental Health America (MHA) suggests finding a trusting and sympathetic friend or family member to share how you’re feeling as a first step. It can reduce stress and help identify feelings. Making an appointment with a primary care physician is also a good place to start. He or she can provide appropriate mental health care resources.

Neither Noecker nor Gunning are medication prescribing practitioners, but they both say many mental health treatment models, including those that employ medication, also incorporate talk therapy and/or behavioral therapy.

Noecker is in favor of normalizing talking about mental health and mental illness. However, he doesn’t like the casual use of diagnostic language for complex feelings. He feels medical terms such as PTSD or bipolar for example can be overused. 

“I think society can use medical terminology as a kind of shorthand that doesn’t support a real understanding of these mental health issues. It may unknowingly trivialize these mental health issues instead,” Noecker says.

Triggers and Warning Signs

Just like with physical health, stress can trigger mental health issues. Both a depth psychology and rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT) psychoanalyst, Noecker suggests practicing a specific style of mindful breathing to temporarily relieve the emotional/mental effects of stress. “Try tickling the palm of your hand while you breathe in and out. Then switch back and forth to focus on the sensations of your hand and the sensations of breathing. Mindful breathing helps your body relax, slowing the body’s stress response. And the added simple external stimuli of tickling your palm can help you get out of your thoughts about the past or future and ground you in the present,” Noecker says.

Gunning says she looks for subtle clues to tell her if a client is having a mental health issue. She watches out for clients saying they feel like they’re letting everyone down or that they don’t matter. “They may not have suicidal thoughts,” Gunning says “But they may have passive ideation. Thoughts like ‘It would be OK if I don’t wake up.’ or ‘I wish I wasn’t here anymore.’ They’re not actively trying to make those things happen, but it’s a warning sign to me that those ideas are floating around and may be comforting to them in some way.”

The National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) shares a few questions to help determine if there are any warning signs that your mental health needs attention:

Are you avoiding responsibilities?

Are you no longer interested in doing the things you used to enjoy doing?

Are you isolating or turning down invitations to do things with others?

Are you getting enough quality sleep? 

Are you sleeping too much?

Are you over-indulging in alcohol, food, and/or recreational drugs, shopping/spending or seeking out more sexual gratification than you normally do?

Celebrate Recovery

Too often the negative aspects of mental illness are the ones we take notice of. But recovery or remission of a serious mental illness (SMI) such as depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia is possible. 

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Community Living, 58% of 33 – 65-year-olds reported being in recovery from a SMI.

NAMI reports that 65% of people living with a SMI experience a partial to full recovery over time.

A common condition associated with mental illness is substance abuse disorder. The Recovery Research Institute says that one in ten Americans report having resolved a significant substance or alcohol problem. 

There is hope for mental illness. The first step is being aware. The next is getting help. If you or someone you know needs help, see the list of free mental health organizations below.

Promotion of Emotions

Check out these tips on promoting Mental Health Awareness Month.

For Yourself:

  • Focus on self-compassion over self-improvement
  • Set and keep your boundaries
  • Practice forgiveness for yourself and others
  • Ask for help

For Others:

  • Put MHA’s screening site in your social media bio. Example: “Check up on your mental health at this link: mhascreening.org”
  • Investigate your own mental health and share it on your social media accounts. Example: “I took a check-up from the neck up. You can do the same at mhascreening.org”
  • Listen if someone wants to talk about their mental health issues.
  • Share your own mental health journey privately or publicly. 
  • Let others know about free mental health resources: 

Anxiety and Depression Association of America (adaa.org), 

Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (dbsalliance.org), 

Mental Health America (mhanational.org), 

National Association of Mental Illness (nami.org), 

National Institutes for Mental Health (nimh.nih.gov), 

Postpartum Progress (postpartumporgress.com),

Schizophrenia and Related Disorders Alliance of America (sardaa.org), 

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (Samhas.gov)

Disclaimer: This article should not be construed as medical or mental health advice. Nor should it be used in place of care provided by a licensed mental health practitioner or counselor.

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Written by Tarre Beach

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