4 min read
two people clasping hands in conversation representing mental health awareness and therapy

Mental Health Awareness month has been observed in the United States since 1949. The 2023 theme is “Look Around, Look Within.” The goal is to remember that the context of our lives — a safe home, a healthy environment, financial security, love and family, and good health — affect our mental health.

Americans have talked a lot about mental health through the recent pandemic. Have you noticed groups of people who have suffered because of isolation? Businesses that might have closed? Young children who were not able to go to school, or college adults who had to isolate or study from home? During the pandemic, many youth missed important social milestones like graduations, proms, quinceañera (the Hispanic 15 year old girl coming-of-age celebration), and the opportunity for going out with friends without their parents. Mental health professionals believe that these issues beyond our individual control, have affected our well-being.

What did we learn?

  • Small things matter—phone a friend, reach out, and don’t be shy.
  • Find a physical health habit that works for you. This includes social exercises (playing a team sport, doing outdoor activities, walking with a friend, or going to the gym). A physical habit will help sustain your mental health over time.
  • Engage in creative expression that relaxes you, like singing in a choir (which helps you breathe and is social), art-based projects, gardening (physical and outdoors), or other hobbies.
  • Eat your meals with friends and family. Put your electronic devices down. It’s a great time to check in with each other. It is not an ideal time to talk about stressful things
  • Notice when you are stressed. Grow your self-awareness so you learn to read the signs of stress. Does your neck get sore? Does your stomach get upset? Do you breathe in tight, fast patterns? Do you wake up at night? Be thankful for the symptom. It tells you that you need to take care of yourself.
  • Be kind to yourself as well as others—and practice gratitude. It will lift your spirits.

How many of these good things have you done this week? Give yourself a star if you do even three of these things. Since it is mental health awareness month, give yourself a star for reading this far.

Mental Health Awareness Month asks us to focus on context. In the next paragraphs, we focus on:

  • practical problems
  • how to be a friend to someone who might be struggling
  • potential emerging mental illness
  • finding help for past trauma
  • overcoming stigma

Practical Problems

Sometimes feeling low is because of something you feel like you “should” be able to solve: maybe your business is struggling, your farm is in debt, your job is threatened, your grades are suffering, you have too many things to do, or you need a job. You do not need to struggle alone. In fact, it is important that you do not. Building resilience is about having the right people to consult with who support you. If you have a practical problem, don’t be embarrassed. Find the professional help that matches the problem. Just sharing your problem so you can start finding the right person will take you a step on the path to a more positive future.

Be a Friend

When someone scrapes their knee, we give them a band-aid and a hug. If you know someone who is struggling, and you ask them if they are okay don’t take a simple, “I’m fine” for an answer. If you are worried, be a friend. You can help with a practical offer, whether it is getting groceries for a senior or telling a youth they are not alone. People who feel alone are sometimes desperate, and reaching out is like offering a band-aid. You are letting them know that you recognize there is a problem and you might help them figure out how to address it. Just noticing tells them you care. If you see something, say something.

See a Doctor if in Doubt

While practicing your own mental health habits is important for wellness, mental health is also an inner biological function. Many of the most serious mental illnesses are triggered by chemical imbalances. What many people do not realize is that the primary age when these illnesses appear is from early pre-adolescence to early adulthood. If you notice a young person that you know well becoming quiet and withdrawn, you may need to help them get medical attention. The first stop might be a doctor (medical practitioner or family physician). You may need a psychiatrist to help diagnose particular illnesses. Psychiatrists are trained medically to understand mental health disease processes, such as clinical depression, and post-partum depression, as well as the family of illnesses that include schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and many other mental illnesses. With proper treatment, illness symptoms may be reduced, but without treatment, the disease may advance. Sometimes people think that mental illnesses can be cured through hard work. However, illness that is caused by disease processes cannot be cured by hard work any more than the flu or colds are cured by wishing them away.

Taking Care of Trauma

Many people have had difficult pasts or been through very challenging situations, which can generate a trauma outcome. Some issues may include serving in a war, having been abused as a child, being a refugee, witnessing a murder or being a victim of crime, being cyber-bullied, or experiencing intimate partner violence. Whether you know or don’t know what caused your trauma, trust your assessment of your distress and find a professional. Health professionals should be able to help you connect to appropriate mental health supports, but whatever source you use, make sure they are trained in what they offer. Some of the types of professionals who may be helpful include counsellors, therapists, pastors (if they are trained and willing), and psychologists. Psychologists also have the ability to prescribe medication, so, like psychiatrists, they can both treat serious mental health illness and trauma.

From Stigma to Understanding

In the past, mental illness diseases were not well understand, and even today, people can be afraid of people who have mental illness. However, most mental illness can be now be supported through medical and behavioral treatment. There is no reason to struggle alone, but some of the biggest barriers are stigma. People do not want to admit they have a problem for fear of stigma. If you are afraid of mental illness, it may be a barrier to helping someone you know. Talk to a health professional about your worries and let them recommend resources.

Key Lessons

  • Mental health is as important as physical health.
  • Maintain healthy habits, mentally, physically and socially.
  • Be a friend. If you see something, say something!
  • Find a professional if you or someone you know needs help.
  • Don’t be afraid. Ask you doctor if you don’t know what the common illnesses are (don’t ask the internet – there is a lot of information, but it is not well sorted out).
  • Be kind to yourself and others.

Remember, “Look around, Look within!” Be part of Mental Health Awareness Month!