If you or a loved one are struggling with thoughts of suicide, call or text 988 to reach the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline.

It’s Mental Health Awareness Month!

The National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI) tells us that the purpose of Mental Health Awareness Month is to “eradicate stigma, extend support, foster public education, and advocate for policies that prioritize the well-being of individuals and families affected by mental illness.”

By comparison, we honor Breast Cancer awareness in October. The Susan G. Komen Foundation describes its awareness goal as “a time annually devoted to educating everyone about breast cancer—including metastatic breast cancer (MBC) and the importance of early detection and access to timely, high-quality care.”

There are interesting distinctions between the two charters, but what resonates with me the most is “the importance of early detection and access to timely, high-quality care.” 

What if we treat mental health the same way as we treat cancer?

I faithfully get my annual mammogram and begrudgingly, though inconsistently, perform self-exams as a means of preventative care. But, if a malignancy were discovered, it would be all hands-on deck: stop the presses, take a leave of absence from work, and begin treatment. I would have an army of radiologists, oncologists, and nurses ready. My family and friends would rally around me—organizing prayer chains and meal trains. My best friend would set up a GoFundMe, and insurance would cover the rest. We would wear pink. If treatment were to fail, I would be remembered as a warrior who passed away surrounded by family and loved ones.

By contrast, if I am anxious or depressed, for preventative care, I try exercise, diet, sunlight, healthy sleep routines, and other environmental and stress management techniques. I may be prescribed antidepressant medications. But if darkness begins to form a mass inside me that the above practices don’t remedy, then what? I might privately share my story with a psychiatrist. I may confide in a friend who could respond in a myriad of ways, “I’ve got you. I’m here. How can I support you?” or “When I’m anxious, I just _____.” or “Cheer up!”. After all, they didn’t go to medical school, and we still haven’t entirely normalized the challenges of mental health as we have with other illnesses like cancer to have a proper conversation. I suffer in silence. There will be no prayer chain. No meal trains. No Go Fund Me. Insurance coverage is limited. And when all hope is lost, I die alone.

That’s pretty bleak, right? But it doesn’t have to be. There’s a lot of room for improvement in terms of how we treat mental health, which, left untreated, can have lethal consequences, like we do cancer. Circling back to the topic of Mental Health Awareness Month, the most critical thing we should be aware of is the disparities in how we treat mental health relative to other illnesses. Suffering from anxiety and depression isn’t the problem. Early detection and access to high-quality care are essential. To do so, we must start talking.

It is incumbent upon each one of us to start a conversation that becomes so normal but also so loud that we can’t look away from the need to overhaul our society’s view of combatting our communities’ mental health crisis just as we do cancer. One day, when a person’s thoughts drift to suicide, there will be an army waiting for them to fight the darkness and bring them back to the light. I believe it can be done, but it takes all of us to become aware and share that awareness and the mental health movement with the world.      

Every journey begins with a single step, and many steps together make a 5k! Help Smiles for Jake and the Brighter Days Foundation raise awareness and money for mental health. Join us on Sunday, May 19th, either in person or virtually for the Miles for Smiles 5k. Click here for more information. I will join virtually with my running buddy, Gypsy, whom I’ll introduce you to next time when we discuss the connection between physical, environmental, and mental wellness.