Mental illnesses are often considered an unseen disease. Because they rarely have obvious physical symptoms like many other diseases, people dealing with mental illnesses often find their struggles and symptoms downplayed or sometimes flat out unbelieved.
Our mental health is just as important as our physical health. Many times, our patients have both physical health and mental health concerns, and it’s important for us to treat and support them holistically for the best outcomes.
The National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) is an advocacy group focused on eliminating the stigma that’s been long associated with mental illnesses. Every October, NAMI raises awareness through Mental Illness Awareness Week (Oct. 4 through Oct. 10).
As a part of this important work, here are several ways that you can learn more about mental illness and support your patients appropriately.
The Reality of Mental Illness in the U.S.
Mental illness is sometimes difficult to detect, diagnose, and treat successfully long term. Treatment relies heavily on what the patient tells us, and it’s important to listen to them and take the time to understand fully what they’re experiencing and what they need.
It’s estimated that approximately one in five adults and one in six youths between the ages of 6 and 17 will experience some form of mental illness every year in the United States.
More than 50% of people in the United States will get a mental illness diagnosis sometime in their life, but more than half of people who need treatments don’t get it. If and when they do, it usually takes nearly a decade from when symptoms first appeared to when they receive help.
Mental illness is also a deadly disease. For youth between the ages of 15 to 24 years old, suicide is the second leading cause of death. Overall, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States.
The occurrence of different mental illnesses is more common in certain populations than in others. For LGBT+ patients, depression and anxiety are more common than in their peers. In high-stress or highly traumatic jobs, like in law enforcement or in the military, post-traumatic stress disorder is often diagnosed more than in the rest of the population.
The reality of mental illness is that it has a major impact on the health and wellbeing of millions of people, young and old. It’s an impact made all the worse by long-standing stigma and the lack of appropriate support and understanding.
Go Beyond Mental Illness Awareness Week: Ways to Provide Support
As health care professionals, we are in a position to have a positive effect in supporting our patients with mental illnesses and changing the stigma associated with it, no matter what specialty we work in.
Here are several ways that we can provide support for patients with mental illness.
1. Don’t Make Assumptions.
Just as with any disease, everyone responds to and experiences mental illness differently.
However, media and traditional views of mental illness have warped many people’s beliefs and impressions. Certain mental illnesses have been portrayed and associated with violence or criminal activity.
Don’t add to the stigma by making assumptions about mental illness both in your professional work and while out in the community outside of work. Treat people with mental illness with the same respect and dignity you would give to someone with any other disease.
2. Make the Effort to Learn More.
Mental illness is a complex and varied topic. Not only will each patient respond differently to treatments and to the illness itself, but the causes behind mental illnesses are just as varied.
Some come from genetics, while others are a result of imbalanced hormones, other diseases, or environmental exposures, like trauma or substance abuse.
Because the causes and risk factors behind mental illness vary so greatly, so do the treatment options and the patients’ responses to treatments. Understanding the relationships of all these factors can help you understand the individualized experience of mental illness.
3. Educate Patients About Medications.
Medications are trial and error. They also don’t work immediately. Normally, it takes weeks to months of consistently taking medication for it to build up to clinical levels in the body and we can know if it’s working.
That consistency can be a struggle for many people due to their illness. It can be frustrating for patients to have to wait to see gradual results over time.
Take the time to educate patients and help them set realistic expectations and goals to take their medications effectively. Also make them aware of potential side effects, the dangers of suddenly stopping the medication, and when it’s necessary for them to get help.
Sometimes side effects can be severe and medication dosages need to be safely adjusted sooner rather than later.
4. Look Out for Signs of Anxiety or Depression in All Patients.
Although incredibly common, anxiety and depression are very often ignored but can be detrimental to people’s lives and wellbeing. Anxiety disorders affect nearly 20% of adults in the United States.
Regardless of what specialty you work with, always be on the lookout for signs of mental illness in your patients — and not just during Mental Illness Awareness Week. They may not know what to look for themselves, or it can be easy to mistake the physical symptoms of mental illness for another disease.
5. Remind Patients That They Aren’t Alone.
There are many support groups for mental illnesses where people who share similar experiences can connect with one another and find much-needed support and inspiration.
Many people keep their mental illness secret due to the fear or past experiences of being judged or bullied.
Advocacy organizations like NAMI offer many resources for people diagnosed with mental illnesses and their family members and caregivers to access for support. The National Institute of Mental Health also offers resources, like dedicated hotlines for people in distress or in need of assistance.
As health care professionals, we are one of many critical parts of a patient’s mental health journey. Make the effort to understand mental illnesses, change public perception of them, and help our patients improve their lives.