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Why We Need More Awareness of Serious Mental Illness

This May, remember that some psychiatric diagnoses require lifelong care.

Source: fizkes/Shutterstock

Over the past 10 years or so, mental health issues have become increasingly normalized. The stigma that once accompanied diagnoses such as depression or bipolar disorder has waned as more and more individuals—especially public figures—talk openly about how they have struggled with emotional challenges, often benefitting from treatment ranging from counseling to medication.

While this shift is, of course, welcome and positive, it has continued to leave out many individuals and families who contend with mental health issues. I am referring to the 10 million Americans—1 in 20 adults, and 1 in 10 youth and young adults—who experience serious mental illness each year.

This May, which is Mental Health Awareness Month, let’s continue to focus in a positive and supportive way on individuals and families affected by serious mental illness. They need far higher levels of care and support than they currently receive.

Serious mental illness is defined as a diagnosable mental, behavioral, or emotional disorder that causes serious functional impairment that substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities. The most common serious mental health diagnoses include anxiety disorders, major depression, and bipolar disorder, as well as schizophrenia.

What sets apart serious mental illness is that it entails a complex, lifelong condition. Treatment can help, provided it is consistent and accompanied by high-quality case management and support services. Yet even then, it is not uncommon for individuals to have major setbacks, frequently stopping their medication and, as a result, decompensating such that they cycle in and out of hospitals, jails, and the streets.

Family members of individuals with serious mental illness spend much of their time focused and worried about the well-being and whereabouts of their loved ones. As a mental health attorney dedicated to helping these families, I regularly receive frantic calls illuminating the constant, debilitating stress these situations create.

With this in mind, it’s easy to understand how certain measures, meant to benefit those with mental health issues, exclude individuals with serious mental illness. For example, what good are Mental Health Days at the office for those who are not well enough to hold down a job? And what about the mental health proposal in President Biden’s newly released budget that only covers a mere three behavioral health visits per year? Certainly a start, but the help falls short by a landslide.

Individuals and families affected by serious mental illness understandably feel like they’re still fending for themselves, even as the country increasingly recognizes the importance of helping those with mental, behavioral, and emotional issues. There is hope in that there is treatment, stability and recovery. But along with that, this Mental Health Awareness Month, let’s make sure we continue raising awareness of the more complex mental health conditions that are more costly to treat and more emotionally challenging. They require much higher levels of attention, funding, and support.