Why Mental Health Awareness is Just the First Step

It’s no secret that our culture is talking more about mental health these days. The fact that one in five Americans—over 50 million people—experiences a mental illness in a given year is becoming common knowledge. And celebrities, athletes, actors and politicians are speaking openly and publicly about their mental health struggles and about the importance of tending to your emotional wellbeing. This growing conversation has begun to change society’s perceptions for the better as mental health is increasingly seen as a vital part of overall good health. But mental health awareness is just the first step.

On its own, this increasing awareness doesn’t necessarily help those who are struggling—especially those living with chronic and severe mental illnesses—get the help they need. While it’s a good starting point, it’s just that: the beginning. Here are several reasons why.

The illnesses are just part of the picture.

Knowing the about mental illness only provides half of the story because individuals suffering from serious mental health conditions don’t experience their illnesses in a vacuum. Numerous cultural and societal issues play a huge role in a person’s ability to pursue stability, and often factors beyond his or her control can make living with a mental illness even more difficult.

For example, poverty and lack of affordable housing add extra layers of challenges in maintaining habits that support good mental health. Stigma as well as racial discrimination can prevent those who are struggling from seeking treatment. Statistics alone don’t communicate the numerous ways these interconnected issues impact the lives of the people that the numbers represent.

Openness about mental health isn’t the same as understanding of serious mental illnesses.

As more people talk openly and casually about going to therapy or getting a prescription to help their mental health, it can be easy to assuming that our society is aware of the impact of mental illness. But knowing that mental health is part of overall health doesn’t give a person an understanding of serious, chronic mental illnesses and the realities of living with these diseases.

Mental health awareness campaigns often focus on the importance of self-care and the value of having a counselor when life gets tough. While these are certainly beneficial principles, they can cause us to overlook the challenges faced by people dealing with serious, life-altering mental illnesses. Conditions like bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and major depression aren’t just low moods or bad days. They’re brain disorders that can severely impact every aspect of life, from relationships to employment to housing.

Access to care is still a major barrier.

Our increasingly open conversation about mental health sometimes obscures the great and growing need for access to mental health care—and the fact that awareness hasn’t led to an uptick in treatment. In 2015, the State of Mental Health in America report revealed that one in five individuals living with mental illnesses didn’t get the mental health services they felt they needed. Eight years later, that statistic hasn’t improved—in fact, it’s gotten worse. The 2023 State of Mental Health in America report stated that 28%—more than one in four—people weren’t receiving needed mental health services.

Numerous factors, including cost, a shortage of qualified care providers, stigma and transportation limitations play a role in access to mental health care. While growing awareness can help to shine a light on the need for affordable, accessible treatment, it’s important to recognize that awareness alone isn’t increasing access to care.

Awareness is a jumping-off point for making a difference.

While, on its own, mental health awareness isn’t enough, it’s still the starting point for making a positive impact in the lives of those who deal with mental illnesses. Growing in your understanding and helping others learn about the impact of these diseases provides a foundation for making a difference, and that’s especially true when you gain awareness through getting to know people who live with mental illnesses.

As your awareness prompts you to action, there are numerous ways you can make a difference, from offering practical help such as a hot meal or a ride to a doctor’s appointment to being an informed voter to giving to organizations that help those dealing with mental illness. That’s the goal of awareness: to gain understanding that equips and encourages you to take action.

Volunteering at the Well Community is an excellent opportunity to both gain true awareness and make a positive impact in the lives of people struggling with serious mental illnesses. Contact us to learn how you can serve at the Well. 

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