Mental Health Awareness – Understanding the Basics.

Mental Health Awareness — Understanding the Basics

The term “mental health” refers to psychological, emotional, and social well-being. The quality of a person’s mental health affects everything else in their life, including relationships, stress management, and even physical health.

Throughout history, stigmas about mental illness have prevented people from getting the help they need to live full, happy lives.

But today, more people have a clearer understanding of mental health and the value of seeking treatment when it’s needed. That is, in part, thanks to events like Mental Health Awareness Month, sponsored by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).

A Brief History of Mental Health Awareness Month

The founding of Mental Health Awareness Month is rooted in a family tragedy. Clifford Whittingham Beers is credited with starting the movement to improve awareness about the care those with mental illnesses were receiving near the turn of the 20th century.

Beers was one of five children, all of whom struggled with mental health disorders. His enlightening book titled “A Mind that Found Itself” shed light on the maltreatment and bias those with mental illness were subjected to at the time.

In 1909, Beers established the National Committee for Mental Hygiene. That organization still exists and is called Mental Health America.

In 1913, Beers opened the first outpatient clinic for mental health patients in the United States. After many years of advocating for the rights of those with mental health disorders, Beers established Mental Health Awareness Month in 1949.

Since then, Mental Health Awareness Month has been celebrated every May. It is an opportunity to share your own story about living with mental illness, increase your education about mental health, offer support, and improve your self-care.

The importance of Mental Health Awareness Month and similar events is that increasing awareness makes it easier for people to talk about their struggles with mental health and get the support they deserve.

What Are Mental Health Disorders?

Not every person experiencing a period of poor mental health has a diagnosable mental health disorder. Distressing life experiences, such as the loss of a loved one, an unexpected career change, or financial difficulties can cause temporary feelings of depression and anxiety.

Seeing a therapist during challenging times like these is beneficial. However, it doesn’t mean that you have a mental illness.

There are more than 200 recognized types of mental health disorders. Some of the most common disorders include:

  • Eating disorders

  • Anxiety disorders

  • Substance and alcohol use disorders

  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)

  • Psychotic disorders, such as schizophrenia

  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)

  • Mood disorders, such as depression and bipolar disorder

Any person from any ethnic or socioeconomic background can develop a mental health disorder. Some disorders are more common in females, some are more common in males, and some problems, like ADHD, are more common in adolescents.

These are only broad guidelines. Mental health disorders can affect anyone at any time in life. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that one in five people in the U.S. is currently living with a mental health disorder.

What Causes Mental Health Disorders?

Most experts agree that a combination of genetics and environment is what causes most mental illnesses. It is also possible for brain damage from an accident or illness to cause a mental health disorder. Unfortunately, as an adult, there’s nothing you can do to change your genetics or the environment in which you grew up.

Some additional risks to your mental health include:

  • Poor nutrition

  • Extreme stress

  • Sleep disorders

  • Isolation, loneliness

  • A traumatic life event

  • Abusing alcohol or drugs

  • Childhood abuse or neglect

  • Chronic illness or chronic pain

  • A family history of mental illness

  • Witnessing violence, including domestic violence

Following a healthy lifestyle that includes a balanced diet, adequate exercise, outlets for socialization, and getting enough sleep can reduce the risk of mental illness even if you are genetically predisposed to some disorders. Speak with your doctor and/or a mental health professional if you have concerns.

The Symptoms of Mental Illness

Experiencing changes in your mental health can be frightening. You may notice differences in your mood or behavior that you don’t understand and can’t explain. The exact warning signs of mental health problems depend on the disorder a person is experiencing.

Other factors such as overall medical health and age can also affect which symptoms arise. However, knowing the general symptoms of mental illness may help you recognize a problem with your mental health and lead to early intervention.

Some of the most common symptoms of mental illness in adults include:

  • Fatigue

  • Suicidal thoughts

  • Self-harming behavior

  • Excessive worry or fear

  • Feelings of guilt or shame

  • Feeling sad, hopeless, or depressed

  • Avoiding friends and social gatherings

  • Changes in sleeping or eating patterns

  • Loss of interest in favorite activities and hobbies

  • Problems concentrating or completing basic tasks

  • Trouble regulating your mood or extreme highs and lows

  • Inability to read emotions or social cues from other people

  • Getting easily irritated or feeling angry without explanation

  • Obsession with weight, physical appearance, or eating habits

  • Changes in sex drive or sexual behavior, including risky behavior

Almost every person has experienced some of the warning signs of mental illness at some point in life. Occasionally feeling fatigued or angry is not an indication you have a disorder. If you or someone you care about exhibits a pattern of ongoing concerning behavior, it’s time for a mental health evaluation.

Tips to Improve Your Mental Health

If you’re struggling with your mental health or have been diagnosed with a mental illness, there are many options for improving how you feel and function.

First, speak with a trusted friend or mental health professional about what you’re experiencing. Finding support is key. A combination of therapies, including medication, cognitive-behavioral therapy, and talk therapy can help you manage your symptoms.

Your doctor may also recommend lifestyle changes to help balance your mood. Consider these suggestions:

  • Eat a healthy diet

  • Spend time with friends

  • Get outside for at least 20 minutes every day

  • Volunteer or find some way to be of service to others

  • Take a break from social media and other negative influences

  • Value your mental health the same way you value your physical health

  • Practice good sleep habits and try to get eight hours of sleep every night

  • Develop a mindfulness practice, such as meditation to help you stay present

Being kind to yourself may be one of the best lifestyle changes you can make when dealing with a mental health challenge. Treat yourself with the same empathy and compassion you would give to a friend or loved one.

The Importance of Mental Health Awareness

The importance of Mental Health Awareness Month and similar celebrations is easy to understand. Mental health concerns don’t only affect the person with the disorder, they also affect that person’s parents, spouse, children, coworkers, employer, teachers, and friends.

The more freely people can speak about their experiences, the more understanding everyone will have about the challenges those with mental health disorders face every day.

If someone you care about is showing symptoms of poor mental health, let them know you support them. Offer tangible help like watching their children during therapy appointments, or bring them a healthy home-cooked meal. Most of all, be available to listen without judgment.

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