In 1990, the US Congress established the first full week in October as Mental Illness Awareness Week (MIAW). It’s a time for advocates of mental health, whether those who experience mental illness or practitioners who serve them, to amplify their message en masse. Mental illnesses impact millions of Americans, and their experiences are as varied and diverse as our population. Mental illness knows no specific race, class, gender, nation, or religion.
The COVID-19 pandemic, for all its brutality, started a national conversation about mental health. Forced to stay home and miss major life events as well as our meaningful routines, some leaders spoke about the toll the pandemic would likely take on our collective mental health and on those in our community with mental illness. Our culture is struggling to destigmatize mental illness and seeking mental health care, but there are signs of progress. For example, Louisiana residents can assess the Keep Calm Through COVID crisis phone line (1-866-310-7977 ) free of charge, 24/7. Such an accessible and essential resource during a global crisis illuminates a newfound recognition of the importance of mental health care.
The theme for MIAW 2020 is “What People with Mental Illness Want You to Know.” Our counselors spoke with clients about what they wish others knew about them and their experiences with mental illness. Here are some common responses:
1.) “I want what I experience to be normalized.”
Some people with mental illness face prejudice, abuse, or neglect due to their symptoms or diagnoses. They might lose out on job opportunities, friendships, or romantic partnerships. Sometimes they keep their experiences a secret, and withhold important parts of who they are, for fear of ridicule and rejection. Destigmatizing and normalizing the experiences and feelings of people with mental illness enriches all of our lives. Embracing difference in all its forms allows us all to live more fully.
2.) “My daily life can be difficult.”
While not true for everyone, some people with mental illness struggle daily with their diagnosis. Everyday tasks can be or feel insurmountable. The pandemic is exacerbating this aspect of life for the mentally ill. Many people are unable to maintain the routines that help them manage their symptoms due to the pandemic.
3.) “I feel isolated.”
Many clients said they are struggling with feelings of isolation. For those clients without a strong and supportive community that accepts them fully, isolation can be an everyday challenge. Social distancing has brought feelings of isolation to all of us. We are social beings, and many of us thrive on physical displays of affection and connection. For many people with mental illness, the isolating nature of social distancing is felt two-fold.
4.) “The pandemic is worsening my symptoms.”
Due to isolation, broken routines, and abnormal day-to-day life, many of our clients say their symptoms are worse than before the pandemic began. Some expressed dismay that progress they made at the beginning of the year in managing symptoms is lost due to our ‘new normal’. While mental health professionals are doing the best they can to serve clients, such as offering telemental health care, not all of our clients are satisfied with the options currently available to them. Many crave the in-person counseling they grew accustomed to receiving, or the myriad ways their community assisted them that are no longer allowed.
5.) “I’m doing my best.”
So what can you do to support people with mental illness and participate in MIAW? Remember that people are doing their best. This is a difficult time for everyone. We are not alone, and those in our community with mental illness need to hear that we are there for them. They feel powerless, alone, angry, afraid, and unsure. When combined with their individual mental health struggles, daily life becomes more difficult. Practice patience with yourself and others. Be empathetic, and give your neighbors and friends the benefit of the doubt. Ask people how you can help, and be ready to listen. Be receptive to criticism about your own behavior as well. We’re all trying our best, but we do better when we help one another.
If you’re interested in affordable counseling, please get in touch with JFS: (504) 831-8475 or firstname.lastname@example.org