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Our physical health and our mental health are intricately intertwined. For optimal functioning and overall well-being, our mental and physical health both need to be fostered. In the daily news, we are encountering more and more frequent examples of the tragedies that occur when mental health issues remain unidentified or ignored. While advocacy for mental health is not new, there is a growing movement taking place today to advocate for the open discussion of mental health issues which are vital in raising public awareness around better understanding and alleviating mental and emotional suffering in our everyday lives.

“Together we can change the story of mental health in America” -Michelle Obama.

This movement asserts that in order to openly embrace mental health issues, there must be a concerted effort to confront the cultural stigma surrounding mental illness. Feelings of embarrassment, fear and shame often stop an individual from seeking help for emotional and mental turmoil. Mental health issues are pervasive in our country today. According to The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), in 2010, an estimated 45.9 million adults aged 18 or older in the U.S., had a mental illness in the past year. This represented 20 percent of all adults in this country. The National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH) reports that mental disorders are the leading cause of disability in the U.S. and Canada.

In response to the tragic shootings at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Connecticut and inspired by a discussion at the White House National Conference on Mental Health in 2013, the “Change Direction” initiative was created. What resulted is “The Campaign to Change Direction.” It is comprised of “a coalition of concerned citizens, the medical community, nonprofit leaders, government, and leaders from the private sector who have come together to change the story in America about mental health, mental illness, and wellness.”

First Lady, Michelle Obama, was the keynote speaker at the recent launch of the campaign. She shared this wisdom: “Whether an illness affects your heart, your leg, or your brain, it’s still an illness. Studies suggest that people living with depression are more likely to die from heart disease. There should be absolutely no stigma around mental health. None. Zero.”

In addition to de-stigmatizing and normalizing the pervasive need for mental health awareness and support, the Campaign to Change Direction emphasizes that it is critically important to develop, “a common language that allows us to recognize the signs of emotional suffering in ourselves and others.”

They list these 5 signs that may signal emotional suffering, noting that one can suffer one or more of these signs:

1)   WITHDRAWAL: Does the person seem increasingly more isolated, pulling away from engagement with others, from obligations at school or at work?

2)   AGITATION: Is the person more frequently angry, unable to calm down, seem more anxious, having difficulty sleeping?

3)   DECLINE IN PERSONAL CARE: Has the person allowed their personal hygiene to deteriorate? Are they drinking excessively, or engaging in other self-destructive habits?

4)   CHANGE IN PERSONALITY: Is the person acting out in a way that doesn’t seem to fit them, is not typical of how they usually behave?

5)   HOPELESSNESS: Does the person seem emotionally overwhelmed, despairing, despondent or defeatist a good deal of the time?

If you recognize that someone in your life is suffering, the next immediate step is to connect and reach out to that person with gentleness and compassion. Primarily, let them know how important they are to you, how much you care about them and how deserving they are of love and support. Next, offer to help them contact their family physician, identify community resources, or find a licensed counselor. Of course, these same steps apply if you recognize these signs in yourself. Don’t wait to call a friend or family member. You are worthy of help now.

SAMHSA provides a free, 24 hour helpline (both English & Spanish) which offers confidential treatment referral as well as information about mental and/or substance use disorders. Additionally, it offers information on prevention and recovery. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) is an organization that educates and advocates in order to combat stigma and encourage understanding of the importance of mental health. Their helpline can be reached Monday through Friday from 10 AM to 6 PM EST.

In her concluding remarks, Michelle Obama summed up our shared, call to action for greater mental health awareness, with these powerful, heartfelt thoughts, “Together we can change the story of mental health in America. It’s up to us to show compassion, to reach out, to connect…Getting help is not a sign of weakness. It is a sign of strength. Those who suffer from mental illness should be able to get the help they need. End of story.”

What connections have you noticed between your physical and mental well-being?

Contributed by

Mimi O' Connor
Group Support Specialist

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