Mental Illness Awareness Week
This week marks Mental Illness Awareness Week. Mental Illness Awareness Week was approved by Congress in honor of the work being done by NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) back in 1990. Founded in 1979, "NAMI is the nation's largest grassroots mental health organization dedicated to improving the lives of person's living with serious mental illness and their families." NAMI continues to work passionately and tirelessly through advocacy, research, support and education to not only work toward eradicating mental illness, but in the meantime, generating awareness through education to eliminate ignorance, stigma and discrimination.
Initiating a recognition week produces a swell of added awareness each year, and with it, more information is within reach for those who experience the symptoms of mental illness but may not realize their symptoms are due to a chemical imbalance (and who perhaps thought their mood response was due to their own failings). Perhaps 2007 will be another person's year to end a lifetime of self-reproach!
Equally important, this may be the week for those who have yet to take the time to consider what mental illness really looks like and not take their own mental health for granted. Perhaps 2007 will be another person's year to end a lifetime of ignorance!
Moving beyond ignorance is key and this is why the objects and aims of Mental Illness Awareness Week are so very important. For those of us who know all too well about the need for education and awareness first hand, I believe one of the greatest opportunities for us at the individual level is to promote open and honest discussion. Taking heed of what patient expert Teri Robert suggested about wearing the silver ribbon mental illness recognition pin is a great way to generate inquiry. Wearing the pin is a way to identify ourselves as approachable to ask questions or seek knowledge. As more opportunities for discussion present themselves, more people will seek treatment and/or step out of ignorance and into understanding and compassion.
As individuals, we can work together with NAMI and other advocacy organizations by choosing to be an integral part of the accurate and informative discussions that take place about mental illness. Our attitudes toward mental illness have significant impact on those around us: how we express ourselves, and how we share our experiences one on one with others will only support the education necessary to achieve the outcomes we all desire. Removing the stamp of stigma is something we all can participate in. (Of course, staying mindful of the labels we place on ourselves is imperative to achieve the outcomes we desire in society.)
In our discussions with others, it is also important to keep in mind that ignorance about mental illness may not be a conscious reaction by those who have never experienced changes in mood beyond their personal control due to mental illness. They may simply not be able to comprehend the magnitude of what this feels like or it's full impact on daily life. For our part, appreciating their lack of first hand knowledge gained from experience needs to come into play. Often, if an illness does not touch their own personal lives, their investment in knowledge may not be high on their priority list.
I openly admit I did not take the time to truly understand the full gamut of autism until my best friend's son was diagnosed with it. Only then did I take the time to learn, research, and keep pace with the need for early intervention, treatment options, and public policy on this issue. I only got onto the learning curve of autism when my best friend did. Prior to this, I knew autism existed--I did not have any judgment about it--but I still did not take the time to understand the growing concern over the last decade, nor get involved in advocacy for this issue. I did nothing to promote educational awareness until it touched my life. I use this as an example as even I who wants others to understand the toll of mental illness did not take the time to understand the toll of autism when I knew others (acquaintances) were dealing with it.
The bottom line here is that because we know how mental illness impacts individuals as well as society, we are the ones to spread the word and improve the quality of conditions. We have the most at stake, and we have the opportunity now more than ever to continue the work: our way has been paved by organizations such as NAMI.
Considering that one in four Americans is touched by mental illness, this would logically translate to more people being desirous to understand it fully. This is not the case. My opinion is that a lot of people fear mental illness, and take their perceptions about it from the media and mold it for their own. How mental illness is often portrayed on the TV is none too flattering. It is usually the "extremes" of mental illness that are portrayed, rather than those living healthy and productive lives or showing commitment to wellness. I am not blaming the media here, I am just saying that more people watch TV than look up mental illness in the library or Internet just because they desire to know more if they themselves are not affected.
And this is where we who experience mental illness can make a differnece by sharing openly and candidly. Not everyone I meet knows that I have mental illness, but when I share it with them, they are surprised and they tell me, "I would have never known." This is where I can see that I can make a difference in changing the face of "what mental illness looks like."
On the flip side, these same people have since seen me in a full-blown PTSD state. They can see the difference in my behavior, mood, startle response and functionality levels. And the opportunity arises for me again to share the face of "what mental illness looks like." My openness is a beginning of understanding. When they see me returning back on the road of recovery, they then understand the face of "what commitment to wellness with mental illness looks like."
What I would like to see occur is the attitude toward mental illness turned on its ear. I would like to hear the same "ohhhh" of compassion that is heard when one shares the diagnosis of cancer. No judgment, no stigma, just compassion and a desire to be supportive. Each ailment is daunting, and requires commitment to wellness. When I tell others about my experience with ovarian cancer, I get the "ohhhh" response. When I tell others about my experience with PTSD, I will often get a confused and frightened look. I have seen and experienced the difference. And the difference in awareness matters. And it is this difference in attitude that will promote the desire to understand and be supportive to learn more about the seriousness of mental illness.