May is Mental Health Awareness Month.
One might wonder why such a thing is necessary, and whether there’s much point in donning a green ribbon to show solidarity with the cause. Although I don’t advocate the wearing of ribbons of any color (unless you’re a pig and won first prize at the county fair), this cause is an important one.
The simple fact is that far too many people in our society aren’t sufficiently aware of mental health conditions and the people who suffer from them. A definite stigma has attached itself to issues of mental health, as though there were something wrong with being afflicted with a psychiatric disorder.
The comparison to physical disorders is starkly obvious: patients with physical ailments (anything from a broken leg to cancer) are treated with respect and a degree of empathy. The mental health patient can count on no such reaction to his or her illness. Indeed, people become uneasy with, and even afraid of patients with mental health conditions. Having diabetes isn’t taken as a sign that there’s something wrong with you; something like bipolar disorder is, unfortunately, often read as the contrary.
Would anyone ever tell a cancer (or, more topically, a COVID-19) patient to pull himself together? That would be considered heinous. Yet people with mental health conditions are constantly exposed to such indignities. People with depression are told to buck up. People with OCD are told to chill out. People with anorexia nervosa are told to eat something. And people with PTSD are told to get over it already.
All that despite the fact that depression, OCD, anorexia and PTSD are all very real illnesses. They may be illnesses of the mind rather than of the body, but there is something fallacious in that duality. The brain is, after all, a physiological organ, and as much a part of the body as the heart or the lungs. Like the heart and lungs, it is susceptible to malfunction. Yet, as a society, we resolutely see a difference between these two sorts of illness and attach a great deal of stigma to one of them.
We need to shift the paradigm and stop the stigma. There are a number of ways to achieve this, the most basic of which is education. People need to learn what mental health conditions actually consist of, why some people behave in a why that differs from the supposed “normal” and what can be done to help such people. People are afraid of what they don’t understand. Education brings understanding, and it is only through understanding that the stigma can be lifted.
So perhaps Mental Health Awareness Month could be more practicably restyled Mental Health Education Month. The internet is nothing if not a font of information, quite a bit of it correct, and it behooves each and every one of us to learn at least something about mental health. A good place to start is the National Alliance on Mental Illness’ website; it’s an excellent resource for anyone trying to develop greater sensitivity to the 20% of the population that suffers from mental health conditions.
Education is always timely. It needn’t be May to further one’s understanding of so important a topic.