Why Care About Mental Health Awareness Month?

May 12, 2019

By Karen Wilkinson,  RN, NHA, CLNC
– CareerSmart® Learning Contributor


Nearly one in five adults in the United Sates has some form of mental illness, with one in 24 having a serious mental illness, and one in 12 having a diagnosable substance use disorder.  And, much mental illness is occurring in young people:  fifty percent of mental illness begins by age 14, and three-quarters occurs by the age of 24.   With so many people affected, it is imperative that healthcare professionals recognize the signs of mental illness and encourage treatment for those who will benefit.  The month of May is designated as Mental Health Awareness Month, a great time to educate ourselves on this important concern.

According to the American Psychiatric Association, the term “mental illness” refers to any diagnosable mental disorder that involves “significant changes in thinking, emotion, and/or behavior,” and is associated with “distress and/or problems functioning in social, work, or family activities.”  The category of “serious mental illness” is a subset that includes the same diagnostic criteria but excludes developmental and substance use disorders.   

Major mental illnesses rarely have a sudden start.  Most people start to identify small changes in their thinking, feeling, or behavior before mental illness appears in a fully developed state. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), there are red flags that may indicate potential mental illness in adults and adolescents.  Common signs include excessive fear or worrying, feeling excessively sad, confusion in thinking or problems with concentration and learning, extreme mood changes that include euphoria, prolonged irritability, or anger, avoidance of friends and social situations, trouble relating and understanding other people, changes in sleeping habits, eating habits, or sex drive, delusions or hallucinations, lack of insight, substance abuse, multiple physical complaints without evident causes, suicidal ideation, inability to perform normal daily activities and handle stress, and intense fear of gaining weight.  In young children who are just learning how to identify and discuss their emotions, the signs will likely be more behavioral, such as frequent nightmares, disobedience and/or aggression, temper tantrums, or excessive worry or anxiety.  Changes in performance at school can also be an indicator.

Interventions can be implemented to reduce symptoms or even avoid a major mental illness when early warning signs can be identified.  However, social and systemic barriers to seeking treatment still exist.  With mental illness of all types affecting 46.6 million people aged 18 or older in 2017, only 42.6 percent of people received treatment in the past year. The percent was even lower for young adults aged 18-25, with only 38.4 percent receiving mental health services in the past year. 

Untreated mental illness can lead to lost earnings, hospitalization, chronic medical conditions, higher school drop-out rates, and suicide.  In effort to bring mental health education to “all corners of our communities,” NAMI has launched the WhyCare? awareness campaign during the month of May.  NAMI believes that education, support, and advocacy for better care and treatment will help those with mental illness find their way to appropriate care and treatment and, ultimately, healthy and fulfilled lives. 

Healthcare professionals who learn about the warning signs of mental illness are in a position to assist those who are most vulnerable.  WhyCare? If our support can make a difference in even one life, it’s important enough to care.

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4 National Alliance on Mental Illness. Know the Warning Signs. Retrieved 5/9/19 from https://www.nami.org/Learn-More/Know-the-Warning-Signs

5 National Institute of Mental Health. (2019). Mental Illness. Retrieved 5/10/19 from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/mental-illness.shtml

6 National Institute of Mental Illness. (2019). This Mental Health Month NAMI Answers The Question “WhyCare?” About Mental Health. Retrieved 5/10/19 from https://www.nami.org/Press-Media/Press-Releases/2019/This-Mental-Health-Month-NAMI-Answers-the-Question-WhyCare-”-About-Mental-Health

May 14, 2019

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