Each May, mental health professionals and advocates set aside time to spread awareness about the important field they work in. Mental Health Month was first established in 1949 by an organization then known as the National Association for Mental Health, which later developed into Mental Health America. This group wanted to spread knowledge and give the public a useful perspective on mental illness in hopes of reducing the stigma and helping people speak openly about their experiences with mental health. While they have made significant progress, we still have a long way to go before we reach a society that is truly free of harmful attitudes and misconceptions about mental illness. Spreading the word about these issues is a great way to show people around you how mental illness touches their lives and those of their families, and to build their empathy for others who struggle with these issues.
Raising Awareness of Eating Disorders Saves Lives
Having severe mental illness can lower a person’s life expectancy significantly. One reason we take the time to spread the word about mental health is to help people recognize signs and symptoms of illness in themselves and people around them. Anorexia nervosa is the deadliest psychiatric disorder by far, carrying a risk of death 4 times higher than that of major depressive disorder. People with anorexia have a dangerously low body weight and have an irrationally fearful response to the thought of gaining weight, as well as a distorted perception of how they look and how much they weigh. They control their weight through restrictive diets, by misusing diet aids, and by exercising excessively. Sufferers of bulimia nervosa have a similar obsession with their weight, but it manifests differently, with extreme binges of food followed by compensatory behaviors like vomiting. Bulimia sufferers are at less risk of death but can still incur severe health problems with these behaviors. It is important to recognize the signs of anorexia in yourself and those around you. They include skipping meals, lying about eating, abiding by harsh dietary restrictions, avoiding eating in front of others, exercising for abnormally long periods, and talking badly about their body and weight. Signs of bulimia include going to the bathroom after eating, eating to the point of discomfort, chapped or cracked lips, and callouses or sores on the knuckles. If someone you know is showing any of these signs, you should encourage them to seek help. Many sufferers of eating disorders need treatment to recover and require careful supervision as they return to normal nutrition.
Reducing Stigma Around Substance Abuse Disorders
Substance abuse disorders constitute another mental health issue that is still widely stigmatized in the United States and much of the rest of the world. The abuse of substances like alcohol and drugs can ruin lives and destroy families. The National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates that substance abuse costs the US $600 billion annually. However, openly discussing substance abuse is still a difficult task because of the social shame associated with it. Many substances, like methamphetamine or heroin, have such a negative reputation that people struggling with dependence on them may feel ashamed to seek help. This creates a vicious cycle where addicts feel alone in their fight against the illness and hide it from others, even if there are indeed other people who are struggling with the same issue. People addicted to these substances hide their pain until they cannot anymore, which is why the public’s image of a drug addict aligns only with the most abject and desperate cases. Thus, people who are not homeless or otherwise visibly struggling don’t think of themselves as addicts, because they never see or hear from others who are in the same position. Alcoholics must deal with a more complicated form of social pressure, because unlike many other drugs, there is not a widespread stigma against alcohol consumption. In a culture in which drinking alcohol is a social custom, it can be difficult to recognize when one has a problem. The concept of “holding one’s liquor” encourages people to look at alcoholism as a moral failing, rather than a disease, and thus discourages people from stopping or seeking help.
Helping the Public Understand Dual Diagnosis
Another concept in mental health that is widely misunderstood is the link between mental illness and addiction. Also referred to as a co-occurring disorder, dual diagnosis is a term used for patients who experience both mental illness and substance use disorder. Dual diagnosis patients are more common than you may think: 21 million people in the US lived with a substance use disorder as of 2017, and 8 million of those also lived with a mental illness. One thing many people misunderstand is the influence of one disorder on another. It is tempting to blame one’s substance use issues on mental illness- “I drink because I’m depressed!” will be a familiar refrain to anyone in recovery-but in truth, the relationship between substance use and mental illness goes both ways. Prolonged use of substances increases the underlying risk of mental illness, even for the substances that our society looks at as relatively harmless. Data shows a strong association between drinking heavily and suicidal ideation, attempts, and completed suicides. Despite the heavy messaging the cannabis industry uses to distort the truth, marijuana is also linked with mental illness. A study found that THC (the chemical component of cannabis that gets you high) can cause psychosis and schizophrenia in the at-risk population, and can exacerbate symptoms in patients who are already diagnosed. While it is tempting for addicts to use their mental health as an excuse to “self-medicate,” spreading awareness of the true nature of dual diagnosis can help people recognize that their coping strategies may actually be worsening their condition.
Turning Point of Tampa’s goal is to always provide a safe environment and a solid foundation in 12-Step recovery, in tandem with quality individual therapy and groups. We have been offering Licensed Residential Treatment for Addiction, Eating Disorders and Dual Diagnosis in Tampa since 1987. If you need help or know someone who does, please contact our admissions department at 813-733-5931, 866-782-1417 or firstname.lastname@example.org.