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Conversations about what goes on in our heads

May is Mental Health Awareness Month.

I’m only aware of that designation because of a few passing tweets online I saw at the beginning of the month. I’ve not actually heard any discussion about the topic in my everyday life, however, except for one mention by Northampton Commissioner Kelvin Edwards at their board meeting a few weeks ago. I was glad he took a moment to bring attention to the issue.

We should take more time to talk about mental health and mental illness. But unfortunately, it’s still not an easy topic to discuss. I, for example, like to talk generally about the topic and learn more about ways to improve mental health issues, but I don’t always like to talk about my personal mental health. I certainly wouldn’t want to delve into details like that here in a public forum like a newspaper column. But I should make an effort to talk more about the subject with close friends and family. Perhaps many of us out there should make the same kind of effort.

I turned to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) website to learn more about mental health in America. Here are a few of the statistics shared by the NAMI website:

One in five adults in the US (46.6 million people) experience a mental health condition in a given year. Those people have to face the reality of managing mental illness every single day. One in 25 adults in the US (11.2 million people) experience a serious mental illness in a given year.

Half of all lifetime mental health conditions begin by age 14 and 75 percent by age 24. Individuals with mental health conditions face an average 11-year delay between experiencing symptoms and starting treatment. Some barriers to treatment include cost, discrimination, and lack of transportation.

Suicide is preventable, but it is also the 10th leading cause of death in the United States. Forty-six percent of those who die by suicide have a diagnosed mental illness.

I thought some of these statistics were stunning and heartbreaking, especially that one about the delay between experiencing symptoms and beginning treatment. Imagine suffering for 11 years before you finally get the help you need. We don’t often sweep physical illnesses under the rug like that.

One of the biggest barriers to talking about and treating mental health conditions is the stigma which surrounds them. Without outward physical signs, it’s harder to understand what people are going through when they deal with mental health issues. And most people don’t want to be perceived negatively or feel shame about what’s going on.

To combat the stigma, I believe we should work harder to be compassionate about others’ problems, even if we have a hard time understanding what exactly those problems are. It’s not going to be easy, but in the long run it’ll be more helpful. We should also keep talking more about the topic and research local resources to help, such as those provided by Trillium Health Resources.

Some people may say that “awareness months” or “awareness weeks” that are designed to bring attention to certain topics are not very effective. And perhaps they may have a point, because it’s certainly true we all already know at least the basics about mental health. But I do think it’s good to give folks a reminder every now and then with occasions like these. It’s good to keep it at the forefront of our minds.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. We’re already more than halfway through the month now, but there’s still plenty of time to look into resources, learn more about the subject, and start personal conversations about your own mental health and the others surrounding you.

Most importantly, let’s remember that the conversations don’t have to stop when the month ends.

Holly Taylor is a Staff Writer for Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact her at holly.taylor@r-cnews.com or at 252-332-7206.