While more and more people are becoming more aware of and sensitive toward mental illness, there is still a stigma that clouds people’s perceptions of mental health. While you can’t often see the pain that mentally ill people experience as clearly as you could a cut or scrape, it is just as present and just as scarring to the person experiencing it.
A lot of the time, imperfect mental health is perceived as something that only certain types of people experience or something that is a result of some kind of trauma. However, it has been found that less than 20% of adults function at “optimal mental health” (according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and it was also noted that it’s unlikely this “optimal mental health” is everlasting.
In Phoenix, AZ, for example, 28.2% of the population reported that they have feelings of depression. This was rivaled by 28.0% of Las Vegas and 27.5% of Los Angeles. In addition, 4.7% of people in Los Angeles had suicidal thoughts, which was the highest for a city in the country.
In the past year, 30% of students have felt so down that they have struggled to function. As a matter of fact, one in five young adults go through a mental health condition during their years at college. The two most common mental health conditions among young people (ages 13-18) are anxiety and depression, affecting 25% and 14% of this segment of the population respectively.
What does this mean? The conversation needs to change. A majority of the population experiences some degree of mental health issues and people need the opportunity to be open and honest about their state of mental health.
First of all, it’s important to recognize mental health for what it is and not for what it’s not. It is not a taboo topic that only affects a select segment of the population. It’s not something to be ashamed of or something that can go away by being ignored. Mental health is just as important as physical health, it affects a majority of the population to some degree and it’s something that is critical to address.
In addition, there is a lot of fear surrounding the conversation about mental health. People fear that they will offend someone by talking about mental health and how to build mental strength. However, this should not be the case. No one is offended when people talk about a healthy diet and exercise as being preventative measures for a physical disease like diabetes. Similarly, there are healthy habits that people can adopt to help improve their mental strength. Like diabetes, there is no guarantee that if you practice methods of strengthening your mind, you will never experience mental illness, but it increases your chances of acquiring and/or maintaining a healthy mental state.
So now that we’re past two of the most common roadblocks, misunderstanding and fear, how does one go about having such conversations?
There are a ton of resources that give tips on how to start conversations about mental health with people you are concerned about. One of the easiest conversation starters is asking if they want to go for a walk. By engaging in an activity, you can reduce some of the nervousness and discomfort that comes with such a heavy topic. Pointing out a change in their behavior and expressing genuine concern is another way to get someone to open up more about their mental state. Even simply asking someone if they are okay or if they are really “fine” after you ask how they are can sometimes be effective in starting the conversation.
There are also guides available for how to engage in a community conversation. This is a great way to create an environment that is a safe place for people who need to talk about their own or a loved one’s mental health. Starting community conversations is a huge step towards eliminating the stigma around mental health as well.