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The Importance of Mental Health Awareness Month

We can all play a part in raising mental health awareness and decreasing stigma.

Key points

  • Mental Health Awareness month was established in 1949 by the national advocacy organization Mental Health America.
  • The stigma associated with mental illness is the most problematic barrier to raising mental health awareness.
  • Due to stigma, people often delay seeking help for mental health symptoms for a year or more, according to surveys.
  • To help raise mental health awareness, take time to educate yourself on a mental health topic, volunteer, or donate.
Source: Alicja/Pixabay

Did you know that Mental Health Awareness Month has been observed in the month of May since 1949? It was originally designated as such by the national advocacy organization Mental Health America. Annually during the month of May, organizations, groups, and individuals run campaigns that are designed to raise awareness and educate the public about mental health conditions.

Here's what you should know about the importance of Mental Health Awareness Month and how you can get involved.

Why do we need Mental Health Awareness Month?

People consistently rank health as one of the most important things in life. Sadly, however, optimal mental health is often not included. Mental health is many times the proverbial “elephant in the room”—we know that it is there, but it makes us uncomfortable to address it.

Stigma, misinformation, and disinformation all create substantial barriers in raising mental health awareness. We believe that stigma associated with mental illness is the most problematic of these. Stigma is defined as a mark of shame or discredit. In our book, Understanding Mental Illness, we discuss the stigma of mental illness and how it impacts those living with mental health conditions. Stigma is a label placed upon people to set them apart, to make them feel ashamed, disgraced, or embarrassed about who they are, often because of factors beyond their control.

What are the consequences of the stigma around mental illness?

Because of this stigma, people are more likely to discuss physical health conditions rather than mental health conditions with others. Similarly, they are also more assertive in seeking care for physical ailments than they are for mental health disorders. Surveys show that the average time between the onset of mental health symptoms and the decision to seek care for mental health conditions can be a year or more. Making a difference in the lives of people suffering from mental illness becomes quite difficult when such a delay exists between symptoms and interventions. As with physical health conditions, early diagnosis and treatment of mental health conditions lead to better outcomes.

How do we as a society move forward?

Despite the barriers that exist, all hope is not lost. Increasingly, key stakeholders are having impactful conversations on ways to improve the mental health of Americans. Campaigns such as Mental Health Awareness month are playing a great role in important mental health issues such as awareness and access.

What can I do to help raise mental health awareness?

Each of us can play a part, whether big or small, in raising mental health awareness and thereby decreasing stigma. Mental Health Awareness month is a great time to take part in this cause by being an ambassador for mental health in one of the following ways:

  1. Volunteer at or make a monetary donation to Mental Health America (MHA) or National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).
  2. Be supportive of a friend or loved one who is struggling with a mental health condition.
  3. Help raise mental health awareness on social media by engaging with platforms that support mental health causes.
  4. Pay attention to your language. Avoid language that is negative (e.g. “she is bipolar," “that’s schizo," “they are crazy or psycho”).
  5. Learn about mental health. Listen to a TED talk or podcast on a mental health topic. Read a book or blog about mental health or self-help issues. These are great ways to not only learn about mental health but also to improve your mental well-being.
More from Carlin Barnes, MD and Marketa Wills, MD, MBA
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