May is Mental Health Awareness Month – a great reminder to invest in your own mental health as well as the mental health of the people you care about. Since 1949, May has been recognized in the United States as Mental Health Awareness Month, a time to “increase awareness of the importance of mental health and wellness in Americans' lives” as well as celebrate those who have recovered from mental illness. This year’s Mental Health Awareness Month comes at a critical juncture as the nation faces a crisis of mental health, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and our responses to it. This crisis has been linked to increasing rates of overdose as well as high rates of suicide. Yet, while there is cause for concern, there are also steps we can all take to support mental health in ourselves and our loved ones.
What is Mental Health?
For many of us, when we think of mental health, we think of the absence of mental illness. While that is certainly a component, mental health is so much more than that. It “includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act.” It impacts our responses to stress, the decisions we make, our relationships, and even our physical health. According to the University of Pennsylvania’s Positive Psychology Center, good mental health should be about more than simply surviving; it should be about thriving. Positive mental health helps us cope with stress, contribute to our communities, and work productively.
When our lives are full of pleasant emotions and experiences like engaging in activities that challenge us, maintaining positive relationships, cultivating a sense of meaning and purpose, and opportunities to achieve our full potential, we are likely to take better care of our overall health, engage in more prosocial behavior, and reduce our risks of depression and anxiety. These positive elements of mental health are not simply the absence of mental illness; in fact, they can exist alongside symptoms of mental illness. So, as we think about mental health awareness during the month of May, we should consider how we can prevent and treat mental illness while cultivating positive mental health in ourselves and those we care about.
A National Mental Health Crisis
The painful truth is that COVID-19, our responses to it, and the resulting economic toll have all exacerbated a national mental health crisis that was already brewing before the pandemic began. Before the pandemic began, one in 10 Americans already reported symptoms of depression or anxiety. Rates of major depressive episodes had increased 52% between 2005 and 2017 while rates of serious psychological distress among young adults were up 71% between 2008 and 2017. Suicide rates increased by 35% between 1999 and 2018, making suicide the second leading cause of death among 10-34 year-olds and the fourth leading cause of death for people between the ages of 34 and 54. By 2019, more than 150,000 Americans lost their lives due to alcohol, drugs, or suicide.
The fear, stress, uncertainty, and isolation that accompanied COVID-19 only made these problems worse. During the pandemic, the percentage of Americans reporting symptoms of depression and anxiety increased from 10% to 40%. Job losses appear to have been a significant contributing factor with 53% of individuals from households which experienced job loss reported symptoms of depression or anxiety. Young adults and adolescents have suffered disproportionately. In December of last year, the U.S Surgeon General warned that we were in the midst of a devastating mental health crisis among adolescents.
Mental Health, Suicide, and Overdose
The mental health crisis exists alongside of – and is intimately connected to – other pressing societal concerns, including rates of suicide and overdose that remain high. Mental illness has been linked to suicide and overdose deaths. Nearly half of people who die from suicide had a known mental health condition, and substance use is a significant risk factor for suicide death. About one in three people who die from suicide are under the influence at the time of their death.
Researchers have long known of the connection between mental health and addiction. Over a quarter of people with serious mental illness also have a substance use disorder, and over 15% of people with a substance use disorder also have serious mental illness. Substance use disorders also occur at high rates among individuals with anxiety disorders, PTSD, depression, bipolar disorder, ADHD, schizophrenia, and personality disorders. Six in ten adolescents receiving community-based addiction treatment meet criteria for mental illness.
How to Support Mental Health
Addiction is a disease of isolation, and recovery is about connecting with others. The same can be said of mental health. Social support is critical to our mental health: according to the Mayo Clinic, it improves our ability to cope with stress, relieves emotional distress, and improves health, among other benefits. Having a strong social support network prepares us for when times get tough. Positive social relations with friends and family reduce anxiety and depression and build feelings of security. And, healthy relationships are crucial for not only avoiding distress and preventing and treating mental illness, they also contribute to positive mental health that helps us to not only survive but to thrive. Mental Health Awareness Month is the perfect opportunity to improve our own mental health by connecting with others as well as a time to reach out to those we care about to support their mental health.
Other strategies for boosting mental health include practicing good self-care by getting regular exercise like walking, eating healthy, getting enough sleep, engaging in relaxing activities, and practicing gratitude for positive things in our lives. Mental Health America provides 31 exercises for supporting mental health if you’re looking for more specific activities to consider. Whenever we can engage in any of these activities outside in nature or in connection with other people, we increase their effectiveness too. Tsaking a hike with a friend or getting a couple’s massage with a partner, for example, can improve our mood and increase our well-being.
It’s also important to know when professional help might be needed. If you are receiving treatment for mental illness or substance use disorder, it is best to stay in treatment and follow the guidance of your clinician until they feel you’re ready to change your treatment regimen. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and Crisis Text Line are national services that can be used if you or someone you care about is experiencing a suicide-related or other crisis, including mental health crisis.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and it’s a great time to learn more about mental health and consider ways we can support our well-being as well as that of our friends and family members. As we work to prevent and treat mental illness and relieve distress and depression that have increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, let’s also strive to go beyond simply surviving to thrive and flourish.