Understanding is the first step to acceptance, and only with acceptance can there be recovery.
September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. This month has been geared toward spreading awareness around not only suicide, but the area of mental health. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), suicide is now the second leading cause of death globally for people ages 15-29! And this statistic doesn’t even give us the full picture, as only 60 countries collect adequate data that can be used to estimate suicide rates. So, while it is safe to say that this is a modest estimate, even the current data is alarming.
One of the major problems globally surrounding this crisis is that only 28 countries have a national strategy to do something about it. Since suicide is a very complicated subject wrought with confusion, angst, misunderstanding, and sadness, it’s not common that people want to discuss it. But it is clearly important that we discuss it as we must grow more comfortable with the broader topic of mental health.
No one likes to talk about death and dying. Beyond just the emotions it evokes in us on an existential level, it also may remind us of someone we have lost. But like any topic or subject, education and awareness are required to understand it to a level of comfortability that allows and empowers discussion around it. Then there is the real possibility to affect and spread change.
What Is Mental Illness?
It is not as simple as you may think. Depending on your own experience as well as the socially constructed beliefs around mental health, you may need to unlearn everything you think you know about it before you start learning anew.
Here are some myths you may have that are either simply untrue, unproven, or “unscientific” (meaning, some of the scientific community still believes this without proper evidence, or it’s been disproven by current more up to date studies and research). Each is followed by the current research and facts:
- Myth: “Personality weakness or character flaws cause mental health problems. People with mental health problems can snap out of it if they try hard enough.”
- Fact: There are many factors that contribute to someone having mental health issues. Mental health has nothing to do with being lazy or weak, and people often need help to get better and achieve optimal health. Some factors include:
- Myth: Depression is a chemical imbalance in the brain.
- Fact: Actually, it is a bit more complicated. Depression, just like any other illness, cannot be isolated to one part of the body like a “chemical imbalance” in the brain. (scientific.com) In fact, there is now more evidence to suggest that depression is linked to chronic “inflammation” and issues going on in different places in your body, like your gut. For instance, an estimated “90% of the body’s serotonin is made in the digestive tract”, which is one of the reasons the gut has been referred to as the body’s “second brain”. Healthy microbes (bacteria) in the gut are also known to help the digestive tracts intestinal cells to produce this neurotransmitter along with many others.
- Myth: People with mental health problems are violent and unpredictable.
- Fact: “The vast majority of people with mental health problems are no more likely to be violent than anyone else. Most people with mental illness are not violent and only 3%-5% of violent acts can be attributed to individuals living with a serious mental illness.” The chances you know someone with a mental illness without realizing it are likely because it is not always “obvious” with clearly noticeable symptoms.
- Myth: People with a mental illness lack intelligence.
- Fact: An article in Medical Daily entitled “Why Smarter People Are More Likely to Be Mentally Ill” claims over thirty studies have documented the connection: “Affecting some 2.5 percent of the U.S. population, bipolar disorder alone has touched many of our greatest achievers, including Vincent Van Gogh, Buzz Aldrin, Emily Dickinson, and Ernest Hemingway.” There are so many people we could mention like Abraham Lincoln who was said to suffer from depression or John Forbes Nash Jr. whose life A Beautiful Mind movie was based on.
- Myth: Depression and sadness are the same thing.
- Fact: Sadness can be a very real and lasting part of depression, but that does not mean depressed people are always sad or that immense sadness is all they feel. Sadness is just a temporary emotion for most people that comes and goes. Depression is often a chronic condition characterized by a deep sadness that doesn’t just go away. “People with depression can feel empty, apathetic, anxious and tense in ways that make going about their daily lives incredibly arduous and painful.”
- Myth: Therapy and self-help are a waste of time. Why bother when you can just take a pill?
- Fact: Mental illness is treated in a variety of ways depending on the individual and could include medication, therapy, or a combination of various interventions and modalities. Many individuals work with a support system during the healing and recovery process. “The National Alliance on Mental Illness reports that between 70 and 90% of individuals experience symptom relief with a combination of therapy and medication. Complete recovery from a variety of mental health issues is often possible.“
- Myth: There is nothing I can do to help a person with a mental illness.
- Fact: Friends and family can make a major difference and truly help. Only 44% of adults with diagnosable mental health problems and less than 20% of children and adolescents receive needed treatment. Friends and family can be important influences to help someone get the treatment and services they need.
What Can You Do About It?
- Learn the signs and symptoms and how you can help someone you may know who struggles with suicidal thoughts.
- Understand and become aware of your own emotions, thought, and biases. Increase your emotional vocabulary to be able to describe and express what you feel beyond happy, sad, and angry.
- This also helps you see that we are all not that different and that we all have “issues”, whether diagnosable or not.
- Learn about the stigma and socially constructed false notions surrounding those who suffer from mental illness.
- Share these facts with people you know and be an advocate for those who are misunderstood and misrepresented.
- Reach out and let people know you are available to help.
- Help them access mental health services.
- Respect everyone no matter what their diagnosis.
- Never use labels such as “crazy” and don’t define people with mental illnesses by their diagnosis. A person is a person; they are not their illness.
Great Resources to Learn More:
- Suicide Prevention Lifeline
- World Health Organization
- Be The 1 To
- Take 5 To Save Lives
- Buddy Project
- Top 11 Myths About Mental illness
- Easy To Read Infographic