When we think about cancer, heart disease, or diabetes, we don’t wait years to treat them. We start before Stage 4—we begin with prevention. When people are in the first stage of those diseases, and are beginning to show signs of symptoms like a persistent cough, high blood pressure, or high blood sugar, we immediately try to reverse these symptoms. We don’t ignore them. In fact, we develop a plan of action to reverse and sometimes stop the progression of the disease.
So why aren’t we doing the same for individuals who are dealing with potentially serious mental illness?
When you or someone close to you starts to experience the early warning signs of mental illness, knowing what the risk factors and symptoms are will help detect them early. Family and friends are often the first to step in to support a person through these early stages. Experiencing symptoms such as loss of sleep, feeling tired for no reason, feeling down, anxious, or hearing voices, shouldn’t be ignored or brushed aside in the hope they go away. Like other diseases, we need to address these symptoms early, identify the underlying disease, and plan an appropriate course of action on a path towards overall health. Mental health conditions should be addressed long before they reach the most critical points in the disease process—before Stage 4.
Many people do not seek treatment in the early stages of mental illnesses because they don’t recognize the symptoms. Up to 84% of the time between the first signs of mental illness and first treatment, is spent not recognizing the symptoms.
Mental Health America’s screening tools can help. Taken online at www.mhascreening.org, the screenings are an anonymous, free and private way to learn about your mental health and see if you are showing warning signs of a mental illness. The screenings only take a few minutes, and based on the results you will be given information about the next steps you should take. The screenings are not a diagnosis, but can be helpful tools for starting a conversation with your doctor or a loved one about your mental health.
At the same time, stigma keeps people from seeking treatment for mental illness or recommending a loved one seek treatment. A 2012 CDC report on Mental Illness Stigma defines health-related stigma as “perceived, enacted, or anticipated avoidance or social exclusion, and not to an individual blemish or mark.” In 2011, only 20% of adults with self-reported or diagnosed mental illness sought treatment. Fear of being socially ostracized and labeled as “crazy” and even “dangerous” keeps people from discussing their symptoms. Assumptions about mentally ill people may also “result in lower prioritization for public resources allocated to mental health services and poorer quality of care delivered to people with mental illness,” according to the same report. With these internal and external obstacles to care, how can we reduce stigma so people can seek care?
May is Mental Health Month and a great time to raise awareness of the important role mental health plays in our lives. We can all take steps to encourage members of the community to learn more about their own mental health, create programs to counter bias in mental health workers and the community at large, and take action immediately if they are experiencing symptoms of a mental illness.
Mental illnesses are not only common, they are treatable. There is a wide variety of treatment options for mental illnesses ranging from talk therapy to medication to peer support, and it may take some time for a person to find the right treatment or combination of treatments that works best for them. But when they do, the results can be truly amazing and life-altering.
It’s up to all of us to know the signs, have deeper understanding, and take action so mental illnesses can be caught early and treated, and we can live up to our full potential. We know that intervening effectively during early stages of mental illness can save lives and change the trajectories of people living with mental illnesses. Be aware of your mental health and get screened #B4Stage4 today!
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, National Association of County Behavioral Health & Developmental Disability Directors, National Institute of Mental Health, The Carter Center Mental Health Program. Attitudes Toward Mental Illness: Results from the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System. Atlanta (GA); Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; 2012.
Michael Friedman, PhD.,“The Stigma of Mental Illness is Making Us Sicker,” Psychology Today