What you can do this World Mental Health Day

It’s World Mental Health Day.

Mental health is all-encompassing. It is not limited to a small population – it impacts each of us. While the severity of that impact varies, we all have a responsibility to take mental health seriously. I’ve experienced the healing and empowerment that comes with taking ownership of my mental health, and on this World Mental Health Day I want to help others do the same.

According to the Mental Health Foundation, one in six adults experiences symptoms of a common mental health problem, such as anxiety or depression, every week. One in five adults has considered taking their own life at some point. Nearly half of adults believe they have had a diagnosable mental health problem in their lifetime; only a third have received a diagnosis.

Mental health does not occur in a vacuum: demographic inequalities are rampant. Women between the ages of 16 and 24 are three times as likely to experience a common mental health problem as their male counterparts, and women have higher rates of self-harm, bipolar disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder. In the UK, white individuals are more likely to receive treatment while people of color have particularly low treatment rates. Low income populations are more likely to have requested but not received any mental health treatment.

Despite the progress we’ve made, roughly one-third of all people with a mental health problems suffer in silence and have not sought professional help.

Mental health carries a stigma.

And that stigma may be the greatest barrier to mental health care for all individuals. The word stigma is derived from the Latin word stigmata – meaning “mark made on skin by burning with hot iron”. This was traditionally reserved for criminals and exiles, and in the 17th century, the term was defined as “the mark of shame”.

Stigma creates a phenomenon called “social distancing”, or the social isolation of those labeled as mentally ill. Stereotypes, negative attitudes, and lack of public health resources and education perpetuate stigma and social distancing, leading to further isolation, worsening mental illness, and fewer individuals seeking the help they need. It is easy to internalize this stigma and carry the burden of shame, hopelessness, and diminishing self-worth. Stigma may prompt suffering individuals to avoid seeking help in an attempt to suppress the feelings and “problem” – often worsening symptoms and one’s overall mental and physical well-being.

The stigma goes both ways. According to the CDC’s Attitudes Towards Mental Illness report, stigma can result in a lower prioritization of public resources and poorer quality of care. Stigma and embarrassment are the top reasons why people with mental illness do not seek or follow-through with treatment. In addition, mental health conditions are typically omitted in health care screenings.

Mental health is inextricably linked to physical health. Mental health problems are one of the main causes of overall disease burden worldwide. In 2013, depression was the second leading cause of years lived with disability, causing over 40 million years of disability in 20-29 year-olds.

Mental health is not just a healthcare issue.

According to the World Health Organization and the World Economic Forum, mental illness racked up a global cost of $2.5 trillion in 2010, making it the greatest economic burden of any health issue in the world. It is projected to cost $6 trillion by 2030. Despite these costs, of the 450 million individuals suffering from mental illness worldwide, 60 percent do not receive any form of care, and 90 percent of the individuals in developing countries receive no form of care.

But there is something we can do about it.

Stigma is preventable.

In fact, it is one of the few things in healthcare that we can 100 percent eradicate. In reducing stigma, we also reduce suffering, disability, global economic burden, and a leading cause of death in the United States.

But how do we do it?

Talk about it. Brené Brown, PhD, a self-described “shame researcher”, says “Shame depends on me buying into the belief that I’m alone… Shame cannot survive being spoken. It cannot survive empathy.” By talking about and sharing our experiences we remove isolation and close the social distance, reminding others that they were never alone.

Education and advocacy. In sharing our stories, we also provide an opportunity to educate and advocate on issues of mental health. If you hear someone say something inappropriate, shameful, or supporting stigma, kindly call them in – start a conversation out of curiosity and kindness and acknowledge how that makes you feel and how it perpetuates stigma.

Watch our language. Words such as “crazy”, “psycho”, and “retarded” fuel stigma and fears associated with mental illness. Language matters. By refraining to use mental health conditions as adjectives we also refrain from feeding the shame and stigma surrounded those conditions.

Show compassion. Close the distance. Choose kindness over fear. Listen to what others have to say and meet them where they are. As Brown says, “The two most powerful words when we’re in struggle: ‘me too.’”

Choose empowerment. Meet yourself where you are. Take responsibility for your experiences, recognizing that no one lives this life but you. There is power to owning our own narratives, and by owning yours you can limit stigma and shame’s hold on you.

Be open about treatment. It’s easy to share that you have a primary care check-up or appointment. It’s not so easy to share when you’re seeing a therapist or psychiatrist. While owning our narratives and only sharing what’s comfortable, we can also be brave and share our mental health treatment process and normalize mental health care. In normalizing mental health care, we normalize mental illness, too.

Limit self-stigma. Be persistent. You are worth fighting for. Take action for your own treatment and well-being. Ask for help when you need it. Dedicate yourself to your entire self – not just your physical health, but mental health as well.

And when in doubt, know you are always worth seeking help. There is no such thing as “sick enough”. You are worth fighting for.

Here are some mental health resources if you’re not sure where to get started:

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline – 1-800-273-8255

National Domestic Violence Hotline – 1-800-799-7233

Anxiety and Depression Association of America – 240-485-1001

National Eating Disorders Association – 1-800-931-2237

National Alliance on Mental Illness – 1-800-950-6264

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) has the following recommendations for getting started seeking treatment:

  • If it’s an emergency in which you or someone you know is suicidal, you should immediately call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, call 911 or go to a hospital emergency room.
  • If you can wait a few days, make an appointment with your primary healthcare provider or pediatrician if you think your condition is mild to moderate.
  • If your symptoms are moderate to severe, make an appointment with a specialized doctor such as a psychiatrist. You may need to contact your community mental health center or primary health care provider for a referral.
  • If you or your child is in school or at college, contact the school and ask about their support services.
  • Seek out support groups in your community and educate yourself about your symptoms and diagnosis. Social support and knowledge can be valuable tools for coping.


Note: I am not a mental health expert, nor is this article intended to give you medical advice. It is intended to help you find community, summon the courage to speak up, and find essential resources. If you feel you need professional support right now, please consult one of the resources listed above. 

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