Reframing Mental Health Awareness Month

Happy Mental Health Awareness Month! But wait… is it really happy? What does mental health awareness truly mean? I’ve always struggled with the idea of dedicating a single month to a specific cause. While it’s important to de-stigmatize mental illness and endeavor to provide mental health organizations with desperately needed funding, I worry that awareness will wane the moment this month ends?

As a PA-C practicing psychiatry, I am highly aware of mental health all year long. Colleagues and other clinical professionals often ask me why I went into psychiatry. My answer is always the same. I went into psychiatry because I have a strong family history of chronic serious mental illness and my parents openly discussed this with me when I was growing up. By removing the cloud of mystery around mental illness, my parents gave me the gift of understanding that mental illness isn’t something to be scared of or stigmatized. It was only natural that I pursued a career in mental health, and I have zero regrets.

Because of my own family history of mental illness, I am acutely aware of the importance of mental health in my life. Though it doesn’t define me, I’ve had my fair share of struggles with mental health. There are times when I felt completely isolated and alone in my depression, or sick with anxiety. I’ve made plenty of poor decisions that affected relationships and friendships. Leaning on my support system, going to therapy, and taking the appropriate medications ultimately carried me through.

I am also acutely aware that my experience as a college-educated, middle-class, white woman does not always reflect the experiences of my patients. While ignoring mental health disparities among diverse populations would be a mistake, my challenges with mental health are one way I connect with patients from a variety of different backgrounds regardless of race or socioeconomic status.

Irrespective of background, it’s difficult to ignore mental illness. But we need to change the systems in place that fuel it. Many would like to make a positive impact in patient’s lives, but the lack of mental health infrastructure in our country and the reactionary approach to treatment makes it feel insurmountable. So, if you’re celebrating mental health awareness month, stop and think about what actions you can take. Whether it’s seeking therapy for yourself or for a friend, deciding to donate to an organization, or educating yourself, we need your help.

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