Started in 1990, Mental Illness Awareness Week (October 4th to 10th, 2020) is an annual event encompassing National Depression Screening Day (on October 8th) and World Mental Health Day (on October 10th). This year’s Mental Illness Awareness Week (MIAW) plays a particularly important role in helping spread more information and encouraging more understanding regarding the illnesses and conditions that have been on a rise since the pandemic started.
Learning More About Mental Health Conditions, One Day at a Time
This year, MIAW will focus on seven of the most common mental health issues in the world, from how they might be recognized, to what treatment and symptom management looks like. MIAW 2020 aims to dispel myths and emphasize the role of support and community treating mental illness as the societal issue that it is. The seven major mental health conditions addressed this year will be:
- Anxiety Disorders
- Bipolar Disorder
- Eating Disorders
- Substance Use Disorders
Mental health conditions take on many shapes and forms, and while we will talk about some of the most common mental illnesses, this list is by no means comprehensive. Mental health is often complex, and we don’t always need a diagnosis to seek help and support from one another. The goal this upcoming Mental Illness Awareness Week is to help encourage those of us with various symptoms to seek support, and to encourage everyone to learn more about these conditions and how they can be managed.
1. Anxiety Disorders
Anxiety disorders are some of the most commonly diagnosed mental health conditions in the US and encompass a variety of diagnoses related to very specific fears (phobias), generalized anxiety, social anxiety, and conditions such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). While the overarching symptom of an anxiety disorder is irrational fear, anxiety disorders can include many different symptoms, including:
- Strict or very rigid thinking
- Negative thoughts
- Panic attacks
Not every fit of fear or anxiousness is an anxiety disorder. An important hallmark is whether the anxiety interferes with a person’s regular day-to-day life, and whether it could be considered irrational. Mocking or hazing someone for their fears or anxieties can serve to further alienate them from seeking support, and force them to turn to dangerous or ineffective coping mechanisms, from ineffective or illegal medication, to outlets of nervous energy or fear, including self-harm.
When someone exhibits anxiety, it’s important to recognize that their fears feel real to them and help them calm down and return to reality through breathing techniques, reassuring language, and a calm voice. Long-term management of anxiety can involve medication but is often centered around therapy that aims to target, isolate, and replace negative or anxious thoughts.
2. Bipolar Disorder
Bipolar disorder is a mood disorder (like depression) that involves some form of mania, and often a form of depression, usually cycling between one state or the other in infrequent intervals – once every few months, usually. While mania could be summed up as the opposite of depression that does not always make it a positive emotion. Mania can lead to outbursts of creative energy and motivation, but it can also lead to risky or unstable behavior, delusions of grandeur, restlessness, and lack of appetite. Some people describe their manic behavior as frightening and unsustainable.
Depressive thoughts and behavior, on the other hand, are marked by inescapable sadness. It’s a dark vacuum that makes it difficult to comprehend or embrace any positive thoughts, and depression can lead to a self-consuming lethargy and a total absence of motivation, even for life’s most basic tasks, such as personal hygiene and food preparation. Bipolar disorders usually feature both manic and depressive symptoms, with varying degrees of severity, and varying cycles. Therapy can help deal with both irrationally depressive and manic thoughts, but medication also plays a vital role in providing a balanced mental state.
Psychosis is an all-encompassing term for symptoms that indicate a person is struggling with a disconnect from reality, including types of dissociation, hallucination, and various delusions. Symptoms of psychosis can range from mild to very severe and are a common hallmark in illnesses such as schizophrenia and psychotic disorder. A psychotic episode can be very scary, particularly if it is a severe one. Staying safe and keeping one’s loved one safe is important. But not all episodes of psychosis are severe, and symptoms can be mild and fly under the radar.
Simple dissociation or delusional thinking can be a form of psychosis, and hint at a neurological or psychiatric illness. Treatment for psychosis varies because it’s a symptom in many different conditions, but certain medications can help reduce or eliminate psychotic episodes. Discovering the underlying cause is an important part of the treatment process. Alongside medication, some forms of talk therapy may help people begin to differentiate between reality and the thoughts in their head, allowing them to isolate and ignore their psychosis.
4. Eating Disorders
While many readers may be familiar with anorexia and bulimia, eating disorders encompass a variety of unhealthy relationships with food and body image, and many of these conditions are driven by a high level of anxiety and discomfort with one’s appearance. The hallmark of an eating disorder is that no amount of change in diet will ultimately satisfy the person’s desire for physical change, whether it’s thinness, muscle size/tone, or some other physical attribute.
The urge to become bigger or smaller is often impossible to satisfy, which is why these conditions can be life-threatening – and in many cases, life ending. Eating disorders have some of the highest mortality out of all mental illnesses, and they remain some of the most common and undiagnosed conditions in our society. External pressures – such as beauty standards, fitness advertisements, and image editing – further fuel these conditions.
But they do start in the brain, and can be exacerbated by physical ailments that affect weight gain/loss, appearance, and appetite. Treating an eating disorder requires not only a recognition of the problem itself, but professional guidance, both physical and psychological. Many teens and adults affected by eating disorders need medical attention and the continued assistance of both a therapist and dietician, to help establish a healthier and less rigid relationship with food and promote good health.
Depressive disorders can be considered the second most common kind of mental health problem behind anxiety disorders, and they too share a variety of potential causes and symptoms. The difference between a form of depression and typical sadness is the severity and length of the mood, as well as its context. It’s normal to grieve, however, but certain kinds of behavior may suggest an adjustment issue, one that might require more support to overcome.
On the other hand, depression doesn’t always need an external trigger, and can start and persist without any real reason or event. Depression treatment varies with severity and disorder type, as it can occur due to neurological differences, stress and trauma, endocrine triggers, or a combination of all three. Antidepressants are a common first-line treatment because of their effectiveness, but it’s important not to assume that the problem goes away with pills. Long-term support, especially from friends and family, is crucial to depression treatment.
6. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is an issue that affects an estimated 7.5 million Americans every year. Child abuse and domestic violence are some of the most common causes of PTSD, alongside sexual assault, and exposure to violence (including combat). PTSD symptoms vast in variety, but can be understood as a maladapted response to a horrifying event. As a result, of stores a lasting impression that changes the way the brain perceives and responds to threats.
PTSD has an effect on our fight-or-flight response, and is directly tied into how we react to the world around us. Individuals who suffer from PTSD can seem permanently agitated or on-edge, but it’s a state of mind they can’t always control. PTSD treatment aims to address this hyperactive state through a variety of specialized therapeutic methods, each of which aim to work through the trauma in a, sustainable constructive way.
7. Substance Use Disorders
Also known as addiction, a substance use disorder is a complex mental illness because it affects the brain and body directly. Substance use disorders are characterized by continued drug use despite repeated negative consequences, and lack of ability to quit. Internal and external factors both play a leading role in exactly how and why substance use and abuse disorders occur and the potential for uncontrollable spiral.
Thus, both physical and psychological factors affect how quickly drug use can become an addiction. Substance use disorders often co-occurring with mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety. It is often a gradual process – and treatment is equally gradual, requiring a long-term approach to address both physical and mental symptoms, achieve successful cessation, manage cravings and thoughts of relapse, and much more.
Education Matters More to Mental Health Conditions Than Ever Before
Mental Illness Awareness Week 2020 aims to take a week to help those whose lives have been touched by mental illness better understand the conditions their loved ones are living with. It’s important to recognize that these symptoms last far longer than a day or a week, and that we may all know one or more people who have been living with the symptoms of some of these conditions for months, years, or decades.
Sometimes, they’re just burdensome enough that no one suspects anything, but life becomes a whole lot harder than it might be for the average person. In other cases, these conditions can be so pervasive and intrusive that they completely change one’s day-to-day circumstances and dominate nearly every waking minute. People in our midst affected by mental illness deserve more recognition and support, not just from friends and family, but from communities and society at large.
Every year, we and other organizations aim to spread awareness during MIAW 2020 to encourage everyone to band together and learn more about the different illnesses that affect the people we interact with, from family members to distant acquaintances. Knowledge and awareness can do a lot to dispel myths and misconceptions, avoid and defeat stigma, and encourage those who fear to speak out about their illnesses seek the help and support they need to live better and more fulfilling lives.